North Korea’s disaster management: a comment about a comment

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It might seem a strange topic to post about on the day after the US elections, but perhaps some readers might like a break from the incessant commentary for something completely different.

If so, I highly recommend the article that former ambassador James Hoare published yesterday on 38 North, partially as a comment to my earlier article about North Korean disaster management. Ambassador Hoare gives a highly interesting historical perspective partially based on his own experiences in the country, noting that deforestation is a problem on the Korean peninsula much older than North Korea itself. He also notes that North Korea is far from the only country where homes constructed near riverbeds are regularly flooded, and argues that North Korea’s flooding problems are, after all, not so unusual in an international context.

I fully agree with all of these points, and the historical context is very valuable and crucial for understanding the current situation. If anything, there are perhaps two points of minor disagreement that I have with Hoare’s text.

First, the current North Korean situation is in large part a result of changes that could have been avoided. Deforestation was acutely exacerbated during the Arduous March, because people had few other alternatives than to cut down trees for firewood and to clear the ground for farming. Deforestation and flooding, therefore, are not phenomena entirely endemic or “natural” neither to the Korean peninsula nor to North Korea in particular, because things were not always this way. There is nothing natural or inherently necessary about North Korea’s economic system, as the many former communist states who have adopted programs of systemic overhaul have shown. Natural disasters may be natural, but each state has a choice in how to meet them.

Second, ambassador Hoare rightly points out that one should perhaps applaud the progress being made rather than to note that improvements have a long way to go. My article neither sought to decry nor applaud any improvements, but simply to show where things stand, based partially on conversations with several people who have themselves worked in natural disaster mitigation in the country.

And despite the improvements that have been made, there is a real and substantive risks that North Korea’s disaster management improvement plans and ambitions will stop at being just that. In this realm, there should be little doubt that the government’s ambitions are high and praiseworthy. The problem is that we have seen too many examples of ambitions without implementation to conclude that they will in fact be realized. Oftentimes, the policy process, opaque as it is, often appears to stall, and political interest and attention may wane. In this, too, North Korea is not alone in the world.

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