Climate Diplomacy: A possible Strategy to engage North Korea?

North Korea faces severe deforestation and environmental threats. Could Climate Diplomacy be a way for the EU to re-start its dialogue with the isolated country?

The Korean Peninsula probably represents one of the most relevant loci of geopolitics in the 21st century regarding international security. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the Korean Peninsula crisis will be one of the main ones to watch during 2021 as a result of the growing threat of North Korean nuclear development. 2021 started with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) Eighth Party Congress, held between the 5th and the 12th of January, only a few days before the inauguration of the new US Administration. The Eighth Party Congress, which took place five years after the previous one, highlighted North Korea’s failure to comply with its expected economic goals. The US’s policy toward the country was highlighted as a main reason for this failure, marking the United States as the DPRK’s primary obstacle to further development. While improved relations with China were addressed, the tone was much less optimistic regarding the North’s relations with South Korea. Moreover, the DPRK announced substantial military and nuclear reinforcement, which could spark a new crisis on the Peninsula. With a new administration in the U.S., the announcement of the possibility of increased military activity, and the already tense situation on the Peninsula, it will be essential for the international community to establish a new, possibly multilateral strategy to address North Korea, creating the potential for de-escalation of tensions in the region. A possibility to restart talks addressing both regional priorities and global priorities could arise unexpectedly, due to the Eight Party Congress itself, where particular attention was dedicated to afforestation and agriculture. This suggests that discourse focusing on environmental issues might be one of the possible paths to fostering dialogue with the country on less sensitive, yet vital subjects, and to promoting peacebuilding in the region. 

The year 2020 was not an easy one for North Korea, as the lockdown and the border closures deeply affected its relations with China, its main economic partner. But that is not all. While the closure of the border with China and its national restrictions on movements might have helped North Korea to avoid a massive spread of the virus (the country claims zero cases of COVID-19 within its borders), numerous environmental factors also affected the country’s economy in 2020. 

North Korea’s Complementary challenges: Typhoons and Deforestation 

Throughout 2020, North Korea was hit by five typhoons, with three of them concentrated between August and September. In August, the typhoon Bavi hit the West Coast, and in September the typhoons Maysak and Haishen hit the East one, with significant damages to the affected regions’ infrastructures. While typhoons are not new in the region, and many other Northeast Asian countries are exposed to them as well, North Korea is considered the most environmentally vulnerable country among its neighbours. Typhoons constitute a severe challenge to human security in the country, due to the damages caused in a wide variety of areas. Buildings, irrigation systems, crops, rice fields, cities and industrial infrastructure have been heavily compromised by the floods, and facing three typhoons in a period of three months has not been an easy task for the country. The destructive effects of those natural disasters affect the already compromised food security and food access in the country, encourage migration within the borders, and highlight citizens’ already vulnerable economic and social conditions. North Korea’s environmental vulnerability to typhoons is worsened by another complementary environmental problem. Deforestation is perhaps one of the greatest threats to North Korea’s internal stability due to the wide variety of challenges that it poses. While the country has addressed environmental challenges since the 1980s, the rate of deforestation within its borders had already been high since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Trees and forests were harvested to create space for crop fields and farming land in the hope of providing the country with sufficient food supplies, and to be used as fuel in a country not yet industrialised. According to the geological structure of North Korea, at least 70% of its territory should be covered in forests. Yet, between 1970 and 1980 a quarter of its territory has been affected by deforestation. A significant portion of it has been substituted with crop fields, and the lack of trees has deteriorated the quality of soil and water, increasing the demand for water supply across the territory, as well as North Korean food insecurity. Deforestation is also connected to the increasingly harsh impact of typhoons on cities and fields, as the lack of trees in the area worsens drainage and increases the chances of floods and the vulnerability to storms and winds. North Korea has nevertheless attempted to reduce the effects of deforestation. In 1946, it established a tree planting day and developed forestry policies such as the National Agroforestry Strategy to address deforestation and agricultural reforms. This year, on the 2nd of March, the 2021 Tree Planting Day took place. It was the second occasion after the Eighth Party Congress on which the country highlighted the importance of a correct reforestation strategy to improve the DPRK’s living conditions. The attention given to the environment in North Korea could suggest a possible way to engage with North Korea in the future, given its willingness to cooperate with foreign institutions on the subject. 

Climate Diplomacy as a de-isolation strategy? 

In the past, North Korea has strived to reach self-sufficiency, which would grant it greater leverage in challenging the international community. It has, however, also shown willingness to cooperate when it comes to initiatives related to environmental issues representing a threat within its borders, a reason why scholars have already speculated on how to use an environmental approach as an engagement strategy. Among them, Annie Y. Song and Justin V. Hastings have suggested it as a possible peacebuilding strategy between North and South. 

Given the challenges North Korea faced in 2020, the threat posed by deforestation and its past and present willingness to cooperate, climate diplomacy could be the first step for the international community in restarting a dialogue with the DPRK. The country has ratified both the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol. Its National Agroforestry strategy, which will remain in place until 2024, was outlined in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SAD) and with the World Agroforestry Centre. North Korea has also collaborated with these same organisations on other occasions with programs on agriculture and food security as well as accessibility to drinking water.  At the moment,  the SAD has an ongoing project with the country regarding the management of sloping land, and another memorable initiative is the program for the restoration of the Suan landscape in North Korea with an agroforestry strategy, in cooperation with the World Agroforestry Centre. Furthermore, it has also engaged between 2014 and 2017 with the Hanns Seidel Foundation in an EU-funded project for the implementation of sustainable forestry policies and food security in the country. The projects organised by the foundation promoted the goal of allowing North Korea to become self-sufficient in caring for its forests. The EU-funded project involved 750 experts operating in the country, and 24 North Korean forest experts travelled to China and Mongolia. In China, the team members were welcomed at the Beijing Forestry University to learn about the latest research practices on tree nurseries and pest control and were trained on technologies for renewable energies, while in Mongolia the project aimed to establish comparative frameworks, expanding North Korea’s network in the field of forest management and improving their technical skills. The project showed great interest from North Korea in the sphere of international cooperation on afforestation, potentially forming the basis for future projects. The foundation is also looking into possibilities for organising ecotourism in the country. Cooperation regarding land management and reforestation has also been a part of inter-Korean talks since the late 90s, but has undergone unstable progress due to the tense situation on the Peninsula. Forestry cooperation was also one of the topics of disagreement in 2018, becoming a priority of the Seoul government as part of the implementation of agreements in April that year, when a symbolic tree planting was held. The two countries’ progress towards this initiative started in 2007 at Mount Kumgang. The cooperation in the Gangwon-do region, where Mount Kumgang is located, is one of the best examples for analysing inter-Korean forestry cooperation. The region is separated by the DMZ in North Gangwon-do and South Gangwon-do, and has been designated as a cooperation area since the early 2000s.  In 2015, for example, the area became the location for a study on how to defeat tree-damaging insects, a project with a budget of 100 million won. With the positive exchanges of 2018, the project in the region was resumed and in the same year, South Korea sent its personnel to the North to inspect the level of reforestation in the region. Alongside other plans to improve its tree nurseries and forest management, North Korea has also engaged with several Seoul-based organisations and NGOs such as Green Korea, the Green Asia Association and Forest for Peace. In the field of tree planting and forest recovery, this last organisation has been pursuing cooperation projects with the North since 1999, and has been able to send to the country seeds and chemicals necessary for increasing reforestation. This kind of inter-Korean cooperation continued during 2020 with the creation of an inter-Korean Center in Paju operated by the KFS (Korea Forest Service), and the same year the South Korean Minister for Unification defined forestry as the key area of cooperation for the two countries to address climate change and resilience against environmental disasters. Past projects are not rare, and they all highlight North Korea’s willingness to cooperate in an area highly relevant for itself. North Korea sent experts and students to be prepared abroad, and let within its borders members of foreign personnel from international organisations. The real impact on the country derived from these projects is hard to tell, however, it is possible through satellite images shared by 38North to observe an improvement in the areas that were the destination of several of those initiatives. For example, the Gangwon-do province now appears to be one of the greenest areas in both countries. During the Eighth Party Congress in 2021, reforestation was also discreetly brought up, making forestry one of the possible priorities of the party. It is important to try to create a multilateral diplomatic strategy for the North, especially for the regional actors, in order to promote the de-escalation of tensions on the Peninsula and forestry seems to be an appropriate topic to begin with. There are several ways in which this could be established, for example through NEASPEC (the Northeast Asian Subregional Program for Environmental Cooperation), of which North Korea is a member, and which includes all neighbouring nations. The consultative role of this organisation might limit its action, but the wide range of interests it deals with (from decarbonisation to land management) might give it scope for intervention across multiple areas. Another way to engage with North Korea on a multilateral level might be again through the Korea Forestry Association, which together with the Ministry of Unification monitors the forestry cooperation initiatives toward the North. The involvement of the KFS would be ideal due to the large number of projects it hosts, given its role in South Korea’s international forestry cooperation. The country’s forestry cooperation has not been exclusive to the North. The KFS has signed a series of memoranda of understanding with several countries and has ongoing projects with countries including Mongolia and China, which have maintained a warmer relationship with North Korea. Through the KFS, a possible area of collaboration with the North is the Peace Forest Initiative, launched at the fourteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP 14) in support of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. The program aims at building peace among neighbours or different ethnic groups through transboundary environmental cooperation, focusing on land degradation neutrality (LDN) in areas affected by conflict. Successful cooperation in the forestry domain could open the door to further dialogue on several topics. Some of these topics are of major importance to the international community, such as the improvement of the population’s living conditions and cooperation for a multilateral climate action, but some also align with North Korean interests, including access to energy, climate vulnerability and economic development, especially given the effects of the past year’s typhoons on North Korean infrastructure. Forestry programs are generally desirable but, as we can observe, they require funds, technologies, and goods that range from seeds to chemicals to suitable infrastructures. With the current sanctions in action, it might be difficult to implement such a strategy effectively without considering revising them, and real afforestation results will not be reached unless North Korea’s population can be equipped with fuels to discourage illegal deforestation within the country. To this end, for example, measures that affect non dual-use of goods could be revised, as well as sanctions that affect the development of renewable energy or allow a minimal technological transfer to explore possibilities to make wind energy harvestable in the region. It is also unlikely that forestry cooperation could be substantial enough to serve as a prelude for denuclearisation talks, a topic sensitive for all parties involved. Yet, it could be part of a strategy to implement alongside the sanctions, which have not currently brought about the desired results and might constitute an alternative to more traditional strategies. 

Inter-Korean relations in 2021 and China’s central role 

With the current stalemate of talks with the North, president of South Korea (ROK) Moon Jae-in, whose term will reach its conclusion next year in 2022, has declared that he is going to make it his top priority to use his last year of presidency as a chance to rebuild a lasting peace with the North. This declaration has been made ahead of his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the 21st of May 2021 and after the meeting on the 4th of April  in Xiamen between Chung Eui-young, South Korea’s foreign minister, and Wang Yi, the Foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China. During both the meetings, South Korea’s determination in finding a way to restart the talks with the North has been made very clear. In China, the two foreign ministers discussed the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. China’s Foreign Minister Wang declared that China will work to promote a political solution through dialogue in the region, while also safeguarding multilateralism and defending the international system centred around the UN. During his visit to the United States, Moon agreed with President Biden to try maintaining a more diplomatic approach towards the North in light of the 2018 Panmunjom Declarations and the Singapore meetings. The meeting between the two leaders also highlighted Biden’s policy review for North Korea, a policy review that for now remains to lack detail. This might suggest that the US may align with the ROK depending on the initiative to be taken. Since the establishment of its administration, Biden has been trying to reach out to the DPRK in March 2021, receiving no response, which has been raising questions on how and when the momentum for new talks could be created. Creating the occasion for a new meeting or a new series of talks seems to be one of the main challenges right now, due to the seemingly cold responses of the North and due to the Pandemic, that North Korea spent in total isolation. If the global situation were different, the Olympic Games of Tokyo could have played an important role in restarting the talks, but this will not be possible, as North Korea announced to skip the Games in order to protect its athletes’ health.

A possible solution could, however, come from China. While the review of 38North of the DPRK’s Eighth Party Congress suggests much less of a warm approach of North Korea towards both the United States and the Republic of Korea, it highlights its relations with China in a more positive light, with the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un calling for more cooperation with other socialist countries. Back in March 2021, the two countries announced the restarting of their economic relations to ease the consequences caused by over 2 years of border shutdown, an announcement which came shortly after the silent response of North Korea to President Biden. By restarting its economic ties with the North, and deciding to lift its cooperation with the South to a new level, China proves again to be a key player in the process of stabilising the Korean Peninsula. With warming relations with both North Korea and South Korea, after the cooldown caused by the decision of the South to deploy the THAAD, China offers new options to bring the North back to the discussion table. A possible occasion to re-include North Korea in the International arena could be, in fact, offered by the 2021 UN Biodiversity Conference to be hosted in  Kunming, from the 11th of October to the 24th of October 2021.

The Conference will assess current issues related to biodiversity loss and will call for the establishment of a set of goals to prevent further biodiversity loss and to restore nature where needed. With the Korean Peninsula being so vulnerable to natural disasters and deforestation being part of biodiversity loss, the Conference could serve as the momentum to restart the dormant relations and establish a new multilateral strategy for North Korea. Right now, establishing the momentum for talks represents a central challenge in order to restart a peaceful dialogue between the two Koreas before the end of Moon’s mandate and subsequent leadership change. The upcoming 2022 South Korean election will not only represent the end of Moon Jae-In’s mandate but may also sign a new turn in South Korean politics, after the country’s loss of consensus for the current leader. In 2021, the Moon administration has already faced two electoral defeats, in Seoul and Busan, the two biggest and most populated cities in the country. The defeat in the mayoral elections was seemingly caused by the steep rise in housing prices, but it is not the only cause. Recently, it has been observed that Moon Jae-In has lost the support of a good portion of younger voters, specifically male voters in their 20s. The reason for this lack of support might be derived from the recent reform of the mandatory military service announced in 2020, and from his strategy that is perceived to be “too feminist” by young men in the country. If these voters were to align with a more conservative view of the country, this could result in another victory for the traditionally anti-communist People’s Power Party, which could  discourage North Korea from engaging again with the South, or South Korea from establishing a too soft policy towards its Northern neighbour. 

A new approach for the European Union 

 A focus on environmental policy could offer to the European Union a foot in the door to reform its strategy toward North Korea. Until now, the EU’s policy has been one of critical engagement, combining sanctions to pursue denuclearisation on the Peninsula, while keeping some channels of communication open. So far, however, its involvement with the Korean Peninsula cannot be described as very decisive. The EU needs to establish realistic aims, and a complete and irreversible denuclearisation would not be productive as a starting point for discussions, given the known lack of willingness to cooperate on the North Korean side in that area and the ideological importance that surrounds the country’s military expenses. It is vital to identify how the EU can contribute to the Peninsula’s denuclearisation, as well as to define multiple areas that could convince and push North Korea to cooperate and engage itself internationally, keeping in mind the ultimate goal of de-escalation of tensions and peace-building in the region. 

With nuclearisation remaining a key topic for all parties involved and with irreversible denuclearisation not appealing to North Korea, the DPRK risks to further isolate itself internationally. A possible path towards Nuclear proliferation control should include cooperation between the EU and the key actors in the region such as South Korea, China, the United States and Japan, connecting such a strategy to the mitigation of the extensive environmental damage caused by the nuclear tests in terms of radioactivity, land and sea poisoning and the derived food security challenges. North Korea might still not be very receptive to such a strategy, but in 2018 the DPRK agreed to stop operation in its Punggye-ri testing site, after a meeting with its South Korean counterpart and after having invited international observers to the site. In 2017, the testing site hosted what was believed to be a thermonuclear bomb and had been the location of several nuclear tests also in previous years. A study published by the Journal of People Plants Environment shows that the tests have had severely damaging effects on the surrounding environment throughout the years, in the form of landslides, deforestation and possible effects on earthquakes in the area, that could affect the leaking of nuclear waste not properly managed. This could suggest that the willingness to comply with the Panmunjom agreements might not have been the sole reason to convince the North Korean leadership to shut down the testing site.

An occasion for the EU to insert itself in a new narrative toward North Korea comes with the EU Green Deal and with the already existing involvement of the EU with South Korea in environmental matters, particularly topical given the similarities between the EU Green Deal and the Korean Green New Deal. On the 22nd of January 2021, the Head of the EU Delegation in Seoul met with Minister Park of the Korea Forest Service. During this meeting, several topics of mutual interest were discussed, from South Korea’s 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy to the Peace Forest Initiatives. The mutual interest of the EU and ROK with regard to engagement in those fields could be the starting point for the EU to insert itself in the wider Korean Peninsula discourse, using the Green Deal and Green Diplomacy, as well as the interests in the Peace Forest Initiatives as leverage and a starting point for a new engagement with the Peninsula’s North and South alike. A new strategy with those premises would be desirable for a number of reasons. Since it requires fewer funds than would be required through economic engagement, it could open up a new channel for dialogue and cooperation in a field of great importance for the EU in terms of sustainable development, while it does not require a drastic change in its vision of the Peninsula’s denuclearisation. 

Furthermore, it could lead to the establishment of an institutionalised strategy, opening new channels of communication, while bearing the potential to step up the EU’s role and engagement in the region. Until now, other engagement strategies have not brought forward the desired results, sanctions have been unable to truly target the spheres they were designed for, economic engagement could turn into funding the regime, and critical engagement has led the EU to be isolated from most matters related to the Peninsula, therefore often having to rely on other partners’ strategies. The question is now whether the EU is willing to grasp this opportunity and extend its engagement in Green Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. 

Author: Alessandra Tamponi, Junior Researcher

Picture: Diamond Mountains / Kumgangsan (North Korea),