Kims’ Clear-Cutting of Korean Forests Risks Triggering Famine

Bradley Martin
Hideko Takayama

In some parts of the world, floods and famine are acts of God. In North Korea, they’re acts of government.

For decades, the late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung mobilized vast work teams to fell trees and turn the mountainsides into farmland, allowing rainwater to wreck roads, power lines and agricultural fields.

Following Kim’s death in 1994 — just before a flood- linked famine gripped the nation — his son and successor Kim Jong Il continued the sacrifice of forest cover until 2000, when he began encouraging reforestation. But the shift hasn’t reversed the damage, and some analysts warn that another famine, close to the scale of the 1990s disaster that may have killed millions of people, might occur as soon as next year.

“Next year’s food situation is quite serious,” said Kwon Tae Jin, a researcher at the Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul. The famine risk is greatest starting next spring, after the current harvest is used up, he said; North Korea’s best hope may be for more food aid from abroad as a result of its agreement to begin dismantling its nuclear-weapons program.

Floods in August and September left 600 people dead or missing by official count, and 270,000 homeless. “Corpses were dug out of the silt” still clutching vinyl-wrapped photos of the Kims, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

`Bad Governance’

South Korea has similar rainfall but has largely avoided such calamities. The North’s flooding “is a product of bad governance, economic mismanagement, poor agricultural policy and haphazard short-term survival strategies of the starving, desperate population,” Alexandre Y. Mansourov, a Korea specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said in a study.

North Korea’s deforestation program dates back to a 1961 speech by Kim Il Sung. In a mostly mountainous country, he proclaimed, “it is necessary to obtain more land through the remaking of nature.” Not only tidelands but “hills throughout the country and plateaus” should be “brought under the plough,” he said.

“The hills and mountains still had trees, and I never heard of floods,” said Hiroko Saito, a Japanese woman who moved with her Korean husband to North Korea in 1961. Her husband joined one of Kim’s vast mountain work teams in the early 1970s, said Saito, now 66 and back in Japan.

Workers and Soldiers

The crews included “city workers, students, soldiers of the Korean People’s Army and anybody else who could move,” said Lee Wo Hong, a pro-communist Korean agricultural expert living in Japan who began spending time in North Korea as a teacher and adviser in 1981.

What he saw there turned him into a critic of Kim Il Sung’s agricultural policy, he said. The country “was filled with bald mountains” on which the North Koreans had planted fast-growing maize; even relatively light rain would wash the crop away.

Reclaiming marginal land appeared successful for a while as North Korea’s overall crop yields increased, agriculture specialist Edward Reed wrote in a 2001 University of Wisconsin study. “Yet from the mid-1980s on, there appears to have been a slow decline in production, probably due to soil depletion from overintensive production,” he said.

By the early 1990s, yields dropped so low that hungry North Koreans went to the mountains to bring even more land under cultivation. Meanwhile, increased demand for firewood — the result of an energy shortage caused when former communist trading partners halted cut-rate fuel exports — added a new incentive to strip the mountainsides.

Death Toll

The results came to the world’s attention in 1995, with the worst floods in a century. The lost farmland contributed to a famine — already under way — that killed somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million North Koreans, according to “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform,” by Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland. Other estimates put the death toll as high as 4 million.

As floodwaters poured into coal mines, the energy shortage worsened and the state-run economy all but collapsed. Economic recovery — which didn’t begin until 1998 — was halted by further catastrophic floods in 2006, when the economy again shrank, according to an estimate by South Korea’s central bank.

A report on North Korea’s environment as of 2003, jointly prepared by North Korean government agencies, the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Development Program, blamed severe “land degradation” on “conversion of forest land in hilly areas to agricultural land.”


The report portrayed Kim Il Sung as a forest-planting enthusiast from as early as six decades ago. Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, said the agency was “not in a position to comment” on why the report didn’t mention Kim’s mountain-clearing policy.

While the report said reversing the environmental damage through reforestation has become “an all-out campaign,” hungry people have continued cultivating crops between the tree seedlings, according to Han Young Jin, a defector from the North who lives in South Korea.

As the branches spread, “people would tie the sprigs together so the trees could not grow,” Han wrote on a defector-staffed Web site, Daily NK. “When the trees inevitably died, new saplings would be planted.”


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