By Natalie Horton, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
September 6, 2022
Over the next century, areas all around the globe will feel the effects of climate change as it puts strain on every system. North Korea’s limited capacity and willingness to effectively and comprehensively respond to these changes, including more frequent extreme weather events, will deeply impact the human rights situation within its borders.
Impact on Agriculture
More frequent extreme weather events and sea level rise will heavily impact the Korean Peninsula in the next thirty years, endangering the food security and infrastructure of North Korea. According to the Council on Strategic Risks, climate change will have noticeable impacts on crop yields by 2030, and inland flooding and sea level rise will similarly affect the country by 2050.[i]
North Korea’s breadbasket, the low-lying lands in the country’s western regions, will be particularly at risk for extreme rainfall, more frequent droughts, and flooding due to storm surges. Due to changes in precipitation and temperature, the region that produces nearly 40% of the country’s rice and 30% of its soybeans will experience up to an additional three months of severe drought each year by 2035. Rice yield failures will also occur more often—once every five years instead of once every seven years.[ii] Rice is one of the main staple crops of North Korea. With even less rice than the country can produce currently, the North Korean people will be in dire straits.
Food insecurity will increase due to more crop failures resulting from droughts and floods. Misallocation of food resources within the country will become even more serious, and corruption in this regard is likely to worsen. As of 2020, over 59% of North Koreans were food insecure. With worsening agricultural conditions, the country is at heightened risk of experiencing additional famines.[iii]
Increase in Flooding
Flooding will inundate many important infrastructural and agricultural areas in North Korea, both as a product of storm surges coupled with sea level rise, as well as a general increase in extreme rainfall events. Warmer temperatures and increases in humidity on the Korean Peninsula due to climate change will drive typhoons northward and increase their intensity. Damage from such storms has already been recorded during two successive typhoons in August and September 2020.[iv] The passage of Typhoon Hinnamnor through the Korean Peninsula illustrates, once again, the severe risks that accompany extreme weather events.[v]
Massive deforestation on North Korean soil will also contribute to the devastation following these rainfall events, as there will be no roots to hold soil in place and keep it from causing landslides and running into rivers when extreme precipitation occurs.[vi] The flood risk in Pyongyang, stemming from the Taedong River, is predicted to nearly triple by 2050, with 1-in-100 year flood events becoming 1-in-34 year events.[vii] The flood risk is projected to double in the breadbasket region of North Hwanghae Province, with 1-in-100-year flood events becoming 1-in-57-year events.[viii]
Flooding will inundate many agriculturally and infrastructurally important locations, increasing food insecurity, infrastructural costs, and displacing citizens from their homes. Prisoners of detention facilities are also likely to be affected, such as when Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 was damaged by typhoon flooding in 2016.[ix] Citizens of lower songbun will likely receive much less government assistance for both preventative measures and rebuilding and relocation efforts, rendering them extremely vulnerable to flood damage.
It should also be noted that North Korea lost 1.2 million tons of its grain reserves during the floods of the mid-1990s, as these reserves were held in underground facilities.[x] There seems to be no current information as to if the emergency grain reserves have been moved aboveground, or if the underground stores have been retrofitted to protect against flooding. Even if they have been retrofitted, it is difficult to determine the efficacy of the changes. This could prove to be an issue in future flood events.
Moreover, flooding could pose a threat to North Korea’s nuclear facilities, such as the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, located on a river to the north of Pyongyang.[xi] This facility uses the river for its cooling system. Flooding or drought conditions could critically affect reactor operations. During the Fukushima Daiichi Accident of 2011, when water surged from the tsunami and inundated the Fukushima facility, the water pumps for the nuclear cooling system were damaged, in addition to the diesel generator and electrical system. The damage to the cooling system and the electrical blackout greatly contributed to the reactor’s failure.[xii] A similar failure could conceivably occur at Yongbyon due to flooding if these systems are damaged.
On the other hand, if the country experiences a major drought, it could lead to insufficient water reaching the cooling system from the river, increasing the risk of accidents. Safety features have apparently been installed against flood damage at Yongbyon, but their efficacy is uncertain.[xiii] A flood affecting this facility could have massive implications for the health of the people in the area and further complicate the international community’s efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear program.
After Fukushima, many health consequences from radiation in the community have been observed, such as a high death toll among the elderly, more chronic diseases, and an overall decline in the health of the community.[xiv] This is not to mention the environmental consequences, such as soil and groundwater contamination, which require extensive efforts to reverse and make safe again for habitation.[xv] If such a disaster occurred at Yongbyon, similar human and environmental consequences could occur, affecting the health of countless North Koreans.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise, exacerbated by storm surges and annual flooding, is projected to impact over 550,000 people in North Korea by 2050. The effects of these storm surges can already be felt in many coastal areas on the Korean Peninsula.[xvi] Inundation of key ports and airports will be particularly destructive, as many of these coastal facilities play an important economic role.[xvii] Repairs or relocation would also be very costly.
Particularly at risk is the city of Sinuiju, an important economic hub on North Korea’s border with China. According to Climate Central, sea level rise, compounded by storm surges and annual flooding, could overtake Sinuiju by 2050.[xviii] By that year, 800,000 North Koreans will be displaced or significantly affected by coastal flooding, as they live below the elevation of the projected flood levels. By the year 2100, one million North Koreans will be in that position.[xix]
In theory, Sinuiju and other threatened regions have several ways of protecting themselves from this outcome, such as building sea walls, elevating roads, or relocating citizens. However, it is unclear whether North Korea has the political will or the capacity to enact such major infrastructural changes.
Additional environmental impacts that will likely greatly impact North Korea are the decline of fish communities in its waters, and the effect of droughts on North Korea’s hydropower facilities. Fisheries across the globe are declining due to overfishing, pollution, and temperature change. This is also true in the waters around the Korean Peninsula. Species diversity has been falling, and there are fewer fish overall.[xx] This does not bode well for North Korea, as many citizens rely on fish as a vital part of their diet, particularly due to shortages in land-cultivated food.[xxi] Fish also used to be an important source of income for the regime, until the UN Security Council imposed restrictions on exports in 2017. However, there is evidence that North Korea has circumvented this ban by selling fish through China.[xxii] The decline in fish population will directly affect the North Korean people and further constrain a key source of revenue for the regime.
Increased instances of drought could also weaken the country’s hydropower capabilities, resulting in energy shortages. Hydropower accounts for 55% of the country’s energy production. The possibility of that 55% being affected is a grave one, with far-reaching implications for North Korean society, including impacts on hospitals, factories, transportation, and households.[xxiii] Periods of increased rainfall will also occur, which may even the situation out if managed correctly.
However, North Korea’s economic interests may affect its policy decisions in this area. North Korea sells millions of dollars’ worth of hydropower energy to China each year.[xxiv] Energy is more profitable to sell during the dry season. Controlled releases of water downstream during drought periods could have similar effects to those along the Mekong River. During wet months, China has often withheld water using dams along the Mekong, and then released it all at once, causing flooding and wiping out downstream crops while seeking profit during dry months.[xxv] North Korea could use a similar strategy to maximize its profits during droughts in the future.
During periods of increased rainfall, North Korea is known to release large amounts of water downstream. Although such releases must be announced for safety reasons, North Korea has a history of causing damage downstream because they neglect to alert the South Korean authorities in advance. Without proper early warnings, these releases of water can be fatal.[xxvi] These events could become more likely in the future, especially if North Korea decides to get rid of excess water during periods of increased rainfall.
Overall, unsteady rainfall does not bode well for the hydropower industry or those who live downstream of hydropower facilities. These additional stressors will likely impact the regime’s ability to deliver food, shelter, safety, and energy, threatening the lives of millions of North Koreans and weakening the regime’s control over North Korean society.
The Regime’s Response to Climate Change
Outwardly, Kim Jong-un has committed to fighting climate change and mitigating its effects on North Korea. Pyongyang is party to relevant international agreements, including the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement.[xxvii] North Korea has also pledged to reduce greenhouse gases by 15% by 2030, or even by 50% in the event that it receives international assistance.[xxviii]
One major issue, however, is that a large part of North Korea’s revenue depends on the export of coal, which the rest of the world is trying to phase out. Although the UN Security Council banned North Korea’s coal exports in 2017, it is still an important stream of revenue for Pyongyang.[xxix] The international community’s efforts to phase out coal will affect the regime’s finances.
The country’s impoverished state is also a large barrier to mitigating climate change-related disasters within its borders. Environmental solutions will require large investments, which the North Korean government will be unable to make without external assistance. This makes the country vulnerable in a host of ways, to both domestic turmoil and international interference, including debt-trapping infrastructural investment by China.
Although Kim Jong-un may be aware of the ongoing and future effects of climate change on North Korea, it appears unlikely that his regime will be able to respond effectively, due to not only a lack of funds, but also the rampant corruption and mismanagement characteristic of the North Korean government. Systemic inequality in North Korea pursuant to the songbun system will continue to threaten the lives of millions, particularly in the face of fewer resources and successive climate change-related disasters.
The Regime’s Response to the 1990s Famine
To understand how the North Korean government might react to crises resulting from climate change, it is instructive to examine the Kim regime’s response to the famine of the 1990s.
Due to a combination of external factors including the loss of Soviet oil imports, North Korea was in a precarious position in the early 1990s. When severe flooding occurred in conjunction with a bad harvest in 1994, rendering 15% of the country’s arable land unusable, the country descended into a four-year famine. In response, Pyongyang asked the international community for aid. The aid was mainly distributed to the military and the elites, while those of low songbun saw little improvement.[xxx] This further widened the gap between those of high and low songbun.
Although it received over $2 billion in aid from 1995 to 2005, Haggard and Noland note that North Korea “used aid…as balance-of-payments support” by “reallocating expenditures to other priorities.”[xxxi] Specifically, in 1999, North Korea slashed grain imports while “[allocating] scarce foreign exchange to the purchase of 40 MiG-21 fighters and 8 military helicopters from Kazakhstan.”[xxxii]
Similar mismanagement appears likely in the face of climate disasters, with far-reaching implications for human rights and potentially the stability of the Kim regime. What few climate solutions are implemented will likely be centered on the elite and the military, while those of lower songbun are left behind. This will apply to grain distribution, water and electricity rationing in the face of drought, and funding for preventative measures or the reconstruction or relocation of citizens and infrastructure. In the face of climate change, the prioritization of regime resources toward nuclear weapons and missile development will continue to harm the welfare of the North Korean people.
By 1998, the worst of the Arduous March had passed due to better harvests, an influx of international food aid, and the development of informal markets.[xxxiii] However, unlike the famine of the 1990s, climate change will have long-lasting consequences for North Korea. Bad harvests, sea level rise, and flooding will only become worse and more frequent over time. NGOs must be allowed back into the country to help with relief efforts for the climate disasters to come, as well as to ensure the adequate provision of aid to the most vulnerable groups in North Korea.
Pyongyang must take meaningful steps to prioritize the welfare of its citizens in the face of climate change. It should ensure a baseline level of transparency and access in line with international standards as it seeks international aid and assistance to counter and alleviate the effects of climate change. However, external aid cannot sustain the country forever. Without the reprieve of improving natural conditions, North Korea will face formidable challenges as it contends with serious climate change-induced crises in the coming decades.
Natalie Horton is a senior at the George Washington University pursuing two bachelor's degrees, one in Asian Studies and the other in Korean Language & Literature, along with a minor in Chinese Language & Literature.
[i] Catherine Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea: Security, Stability & Climate Change,” The Center for Climate and Security, July 2021, 1. https://climateandsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Converging-Crises-in-North-Korea_Security-Stability-and-Climate-Change_CSR_Woodwell.pdf.
[ii] Ibid, 3.
[iv] Ibid, 2.
[v] Min Joo Kim, “Typhoon Hinnamnor bears down on South Korea, bringing damaging winds,” The Washington Post, September 5, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/05/south-korea-typhoon-hinnamnor-storm/.
[vi] Jean Chemnick, “With Widespread Deforestation, North Korea Faces an Environmental Crisis,” Scientific American, April 19, 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/with-widespread-deforestation-north-korea-faces-an-environmental-crisis/.
[vii] Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea,” 5.
[viii] Ibid., 6.
[ix] Joseph S. Bermudez and Greg Scarlatoiu, North Korea: Flooding at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jŏngŏ-ri (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea), September 16, 2016. https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Kyo-hwa-so%20No_%2012%20Flooding.pdf.
[x] John Hemmings, “Deciphering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” International Politics Reviews 1 (2013): 73. https://doi.org/10.1057/ipr.2013.7.
[xi] Peter Makowsky, “North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Center: Flood Damage Repairs Underway,” 38 North, July 12, 2022. https://www.38north.org/2020/10/yongbyon202210/.
[xii] “Fukushima Daiichi Accident,” World Nuclear Association, May 2022. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-daiichi-accident.aspx.
[xiii] Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea,” 5.
[xiv] Dennis Normile, “This Physician Has Studied the Fukushima Disaster for a Decade-and Found a Surprising Health Threat,” Science, March 4, 2021. https://www.science.org/content/article/physician-has-studied-fukushima-disaster-decade-and-found-surprising-health-threat.
[xv] Maria Burke, “A Decade on Japan Is Still Grappling with the Environmental Impact of Fukushima.” Chemistry World, March 11, 2021. https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/a-decade-on-japan-is-still-grappling-with-the-environmental-impact-of-fukushima/4013364.article.
[xvi] Dill et al., “Converging Crises in North Korea,” 6.
[xvii] Ibid., 7.
[xviii] Jacob Fromer, “Rising Sea Levels Could Inundate North Korea's Sinuiju by 2050, New Study Shows,” NK News, November 6, 2019. https://www.nknews.org/2019/11/rising-sea-levels-could-inundate-north-koreas-sinuiju-by-2050-new-study-shows/.
[xx] Suam Kim et al., “Climate variability and its effects on major fisheries in Korea,” Ocean Science Journal 42, (2007): 179–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03020922.
[xxi] Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “Fishing in North Korea, A History and A Geography,” in Fish, Fishing and Community in North Korea and Neighbours (Springer Singapore, 2020), 99–134. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-0042-8_4.
[xxii] Sue-Lin Wong, “How North Korean Seafood Ends up in Countries That Ban It,” Reuters, December 20, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-northkorea-seafood/how-north-korean-seafood-ends-up-in-countries-that-ban-it-idUSKBN14A084.
[xxiii] Jason Bartlett, “North Korea Plans to Dig Deep into Renewable Energy Alternatives,” The Diplomat, December 7, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/north-korea-plans-to-dig-deep-into-renewable-energy-alternatives/.
[xxiv] Jeremy Page, “North Korea is Making Millions of Dollars Selling Power to China,” The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/north-korea-is-making-millions-of-dollars-selling-power-to-china-1521192603.
[xxv] Brian Eyler and Courtney Weatherby, “New Evidence: How China Turned off the Tap on the Mekong River,” Stimson Center, April 30, 2020. https://www.stimson.org/2020/new-evidence-how-china-turned-off-the-mekong-tap/.
[xxvi] Da-gyum Ji, “N. Korea Discharges Water from Border Dam without Prior Notice,” The Korea Herald, June 30, 2022. https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220630000868.
[xxvii] Christian Davies, “Natural Disasters Drive North Korea's Embrace of International Climate Goals,” Financial Times, January 11, 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/d637c465-fc9e-4254-8191-193ac5eae30e.
[xxix] Troy Stangarone, “North Korean Coal Smuggling, Still Profitable,” Korea Economic Institute of America, February 27, 2020. https://keia.org/the-peninsula/north-korean-coal-smuggling-still-profitable/.
[xxx] Erin Blakemore, “North Korea's Devastating Famine,” History.com, September 1, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/north-koreas-devastating-famine.
[xxxi] Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2005), 10–11. https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Hunger_and_Human_Rights.pdf.
[xxxii] Ibid., 16.
[xxxiii] Jordan Weissmann, “How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea,” The Atlantic, December 20, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/how-kim-jong-il-starved-north-korea/250244/.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.