North Korea, Climate Mitigation and the Global Commons

By | September 08, 2012 | 1 Comment

Hydroelectric Dam at Sinpyong, North Pyong’an province, DPRK | Photo courtesy Benjamin Habib

North Korea, Climate Mitigation and the Global Atmospheric Commons

by Benjamin Habib

The North Korean government has every reason to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and participate in the global climate change mitigation project.  As early as August 2002, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) warned about the danger to Korea of “whimsical” weather patterns and repeated natural disasters attributed directly to global warming.

The rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere turbo-charges the hydrological cycle, altering precipitation patterns and thereby increasing the occurrence of sporadic, heavy dumping precipitation events across the Korean peninsula.[1]  When flooding results, valley farmland is destroyed, valuable top soils washed away, roads cut and rivers clogged with silt.

Increasing average temperatures impinge on the heat tolerances of natural flora and agricultural crops, changing the dynamics of crop productivity, pest and disease vectors.  In the longer term, there are risks associated with sea level rise—inundation, storm surge and salt water intrusion—to North Korea’s coastal land reclamation projects.  All of these impacts are likely to interact perversely with pre-existing weaknesses in the political economy of the North Korean state.[2]

It is therefore timely to survey the DPRK’s status under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the growing number of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in North Korea, and the prevalence of climate change reporting by KCNA to gauge the relative importance of climate change to the Kim regime.

North Korea and the UNFCCC | The UNFCCC is a treaty framework of non-binding soft law commitments and guiding principles aimed at the long-term objective of solidifying national emissions reduction commitments into binding international law.  Under the Convention, governments agree to collect and share information on greenhouse gas inventories, emissions abatement best practice, launch national strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and cooperate in climate change adaptation.

The Convention divides signatory countries into three main groups: Annex I Parties, which include the industrialized countries that were members of the OECD in 1992, plus countries of the former Soviet Union designated as ‘economies in transition’; Annex II Parties, comprising the OECD members of Annex I, but not the economies in transition’ countries; and Non-Annex I Parties, inclusive of developing countries or countries recognized as being especially vulnerable to adverse climate impacts.  North Korea is a Non-Annex I party to the UNFCCC

North Korea joined the UNFCCC on 5th March 1995 and submitted its First National Communication Under the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2000.  The First National Communication provided an inventory of North Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions, along with a summary of the country’s emissions abatement measures and adaptation strategies.

The First National Communication was prepared with the assistance of a grant from the United Nations Development Program and Global Environment Facility.  It has little in common with any other official document coming out of Pyongyang, written in the technical style one would expect from a Western bureaucracy.  There is no hint of the bombastic rhetoric characteristic of official North Korean communications.

Yet the First National Communication was obsolete at publication, based on data sets from 1990 before the economic, political and social changes of the Arduous March period.  North Korea has yet to submit a second national communication to the UNFCCC, despite indications from the Ministry of the Land and Environment Conservation in June 2008 that a second national report was in production.  In the absence of an updated national communication to the UNFCCC, it is impossible to verify North Korea’s current greenhouse gas emissions budget or locate the specific mitigation and adaptation measures periodically announced within a broader national strategy.

Clean Development Mechanism Projects | Within the UNFCCC, Clean Development Mechanisms were enshrined under Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol to facilitate transfer of financial and technological assistance from Annex II to Non-Annex I and economy-in-transition countries to help the latter undertake emissions reduction activities and adapt to adverse climate impacts.

While North Korea is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, it has registered several CDM projects with the UNFCCC including hydropower stations such as Hamhung Power Plant No. 1 in South Hamgyong Province, Paekdusan Songun Youth 14 MW Hydropower Project No. 2 in Ryanggang Province and Kumya Hydropower Plant in South Hamgyong Province, and methane reduction programs concentrating on management of animal waste systems, industrial waste water and coal mine methane at sites across the country.

It is estimated that North Korea could earn up to US$1 million annually from these projects through carbon credit trading on international markets, assuming a carbon price of US$26 per ton.  While one million dollars is not a significant annual revenue stream, there is potential for expansion of CDM projects across the DPRK in hydroelectricity, reforestation and energy efficiency, where significant low-hanging fruit remains.

Reporting and verification of North Korean CDM projects is not unproblematic.  CDM projects, like Wonsangunmin Hydropower Plant No. 1 in Kangwon Province and Ryesonggang Hydropower Plant No.4 in North Hwanghae Province, have been withdrawn after mandatory verification inspections found discrepancies in data submissions, examples of North Korean interactions with the outside world where quid pro quo gets lost in the Juche-inspired quest for economic inputs.

CDM projects in North Korea are characterised by an uncomfortable co-existence between one-party politics and Western bureaucratic box ticking.  The questionnaire-based local stakeholder consultation process required for all CDM projects is potentially meaningless in the North Korean context, where province level people’s committees are tasked with collecting stakeholder feedback.  In the case of Hamhung Power Plant No. 1 for example, all of the 70 stakeholders surveyed “expressed their supportive opinion to the proposed project.”[3]

North Korean CDM projects must also evolve within broader ideological interpretations of land management that posit man as the master of nature, where the landscape exists to be physically reshaped into a “socialist fairyland,” tracing a lineage of thought from Kim Il Sung (Let Us Make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers[4]) to Kim Jong Il (On Improving Land Management[5]) and now Kim Jong Un (On Bringing About a Revolutionary Turn in Land Administration in Line With the Requirements of the Building of a Thriving Socialist Country).  The lingering question is therefore the degree to which North Korea’s CDM projects represent a tangible commitment to climate mitigation or an opportunistic money grab dwarfed by the state’s anthropocentric nation-scaping project that ultimately may undermine climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

North Korea’s Commitment to Climate Mitigation | How then can we evaluate the North Korean government’s commitment to greenhouse gas abatement?  Joint New Year Editorials, usually a good indication of the regime’s priorities, have never mentioned climate change.  Climate change and global warming have been mentioned explicitly in 82 articles published by KCNA since 2002.  KCNA is the regime’s conduit of information to the outside world, in which the themes and timing of articles are indicative of what the regime wants the international community to hear.

Prior to 2010, climate change-related articles tended to coincide with internationally significant dates such as World Environment Day or World Meteorological Day.  However 2011 was a breakout year for climate change reporting in KCNA, featuring 39 articles.  This spike in climate reporting included coverage of natural disasters and wild climatic variations in North Korea and abroad.  Climate change impacts are a growing problem for North Korea and also provide a plausible pretext for securing international food aid.  While disaster events provide a legitimate case for international assistance, the climate change justification is also open to manipulation, as we have seen this year with official statements about a drought for which there is little evidence on the ground.

Explicit official statements about UNFCCC compliance were not made until 2008 and 2009, but this changed in 2011 as climate change reporting increased, particularly in November and December in the lead up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP17) in Durban.  Also interesting is the use of climate change as a rhetorical device to attack the United States.  Washington’s perceived obstructionism within the UNFCCC process and the country’s large greenhouse gas emissions footprint fit perfectly within the paradigmatic bounds of North Korea’s anti-American, anti-imperialist propaganda.

The North Korean government is engaged in numerous capacity-building and adaptation programs in collaboration with several non-government and international organisations.  However its commitment to the global climate mitigation project through collective international management of the atmospheric commons is less certain.  The survey above suggests an instrumental commitment based on income-generating CDM projects and loaded rhetorical signalling, without whole-hearted engagement with the over-arching goals of the UNFCCC.

Dr. Benjamin Habib is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia).  More information and links regarding his extensive publication program and teaching experience, including a stint in Dandong), can be accessed via his university homepage.


[1] Parry, ML et al. (2007). “Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. pp. 474-484.

[2] Habib, B. (2010). “Climate Change and Regime Perpetuation in North Korea.” Asian Survey 50(2): 378–401.

[3] “Clean Development Mechanism Project Design Document Form, Version 03: Hamhung Power Plant No. 1.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 22 December 2006. pp. 31-33.

[4] Kim Il Sung. (1984). “Let Us make Effective Use of Mountains and Rivers.” in Works. Vol. 18. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House. pp. 255-266.

[5] Kim Jong Il. (1989). On Improving Land Management. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

One Comment

  1. Note that North Korea could also lose some of its attractiveness for Russia, should Vladivostok confirm its status as a warm water port that seldom freezes (of course that’s not the main motivation behind their partnerships)

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