Environmental Movements and the DPRK [II]

In an earlier post I went off the handle in Beat style and demanded that the U.S. and China get serious about both engaging and pressuring the North Koreans by focusing on environmental issues:

Send Stephen Chu to pound on the table at the Six-Party Talks!

Blast down the tunnels at the DMZ for joint seismic research!  Tag the tigers endangered and let them leap over the Tumen like ice-clawing journalists!

Study roots in glass jars, trajectories of smog-plumes, hail the ghosts of heroic engineers past!  Let North Korea make new children’s stories of labor heroes who stop those voracious Chinese from blowing up whole mountaintops to extract their concrete for Changchun’s burly girders!


The DPRK’s release of hundreds of tons of water down the Imjin River and into South Korea, where the North Korean water caused a flood on Sunday and killed six people, puts this issue into sharper relief.  (See Stanton and Marmot for further gnashing of teeth.)

Unfortunately the same old tropes return with this incident.  Korean Broadcasting Service reports that Lee Myung-bak, unsurprisingly at a cabinet meeting, ordered a full investigation of the incident, making demands for apology and transparency that North Korea is unlikely to meet.  And it’s a strange incident indeed, as it occurred in the midst of a short warming trend, and Pyongyang isn’t above using an incident like this to deepen ties with (sources of much-needed largesse in) Seoul.

But today’s 61st anniversary of the DPRK’s founding makes it an additional loss of face for NK if they simply admit their infrastructure is crumbling. So it’s hard to imagine either an apology or some conciliatory step which connects to the “smile diplomacy” that Victor Cha talked about recently an a solid interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

As for journal articles about DPRK water management policies more generally, we seem to have more data from the Chinese side (as in this example from Jilin province) on account of coordination on Yalu hydro dams in particular.

Pyongyang needs to be pressured to cleave to the international environmental standards to which it has already agreed to adhere.  The agreements which it has signed include the Climate Change Convention and Biodiversity Convention.  (In the print world, p. 403 of Yonhap’s 2003 North Korea Handbook includes more detail).  North Korea’s aging factories are also contributing to global warming (see breakdown on DPRK CO2 emissions as of 1999 here.)

Along similar lines, the DPRK’s pollution of the Tumen River could morph into a situation where still-muzzled but increasingly vigorous Chinese environmental NGOs would start firing back. Because building the case within Chinese popular opinion for an anti-North Korea platform, unfortunately, can’t be justified on human rights violations alone. Building in multiple pressure points versus Pyongyang, including the use of environmental issues, would seem to require something more nimble than the blunt politics of apology into which East Asia seems to get so easily mired, notwithstanding the obvious North Korean culpability in the recent Imjin River incident.

DPRK water resource management presents us with a muted but present case of Chinese criticism of North Koreans on that front. Via Greater Tumen Initiative,dated July 10 2009:

Major sources of water pollution in the DPRK portion of the Tumen watershed include Musan Iron Mine, Undok Chemical Fertiliser Plant, Kraft Paper Mill and Hoeryong Paper. Recourses’ exploitation within the Tumen region also resulted in serious deforestation, soil erosion and other forms of environment degradation caused the Tumen River water pollution. The pollution threatens the Russian Far East Marine Reserve and Khasan wetlands, worsens life condition of the population of the region and raises costs for the regional industries. Effective protection of the Tumen River and the improvement of its water quality are urgent tasks that require the cooperation of the GTI member countries. Capacity building and information gathering are also needed in all three areas of the Tumen watershed.

Too bad, bucked up by contact with Cuban comrades, Pyongyang is blasting out recently against the forces of globalization, which maybe include environmental standards and political critiques.

In response, we find this atrociously arrogant KCNA dispatch of September 4 (entitled “Giant Edifices Mushroom in DPRK“) in which the regime brags about its ability to, yes, build dams.

In the future, I hope to connect with my friends in Fisheries, including Amanda Bradford, of the University of Washington.  Amanda is one of the foremost global experts on the western Pacific grey whale, an endangered spieces which elides with North Korean waters — another example of the boundless meeting the hard edges of geo-political conflict.  Her work with Russian researchers, and the extent to which data can be culled from North Korea, is something I’m keeping an eye on.

Finally, it should be noted that the North Koreans themselves provided an opening to include environmental issues and exchanges in our Track II interactions with them, specifically requesting more environmental cooperation, when they met with former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last month in New Mexico, USA.   Call it tactical, but it’s an opening nevertheless.  Fortunately I have some backup on this, via ChannelNewsAsia’s  reporting on Richardson’s meeting and subsequent exchanges:

Asia Society scholar John Delury, who recently returned from a five-day trip to North Korea, said he was struck by the warm welcome that North Koreans extended to him and other US visitors.

It did suggest to me that the environment in North Korea is one where they’re getting indicators that a thaw is occurring,” said Delury, associate director of the New York-based Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations.

“I think the ball is now in the US and South Korea’s court to decide how to play this,” he said.

“There is a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Obama administration is determined to see only the negative here and mistrust any gestures, then it’s not going to strengthen those in North Korea who are saying let’s open up, let’s go back to the dialogue,” he said.

Western Pacific Grey Whale
North Korean Children's Story
North Korean Children's Story

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