The Ecologic and the Politic, Nature and the Natural – A Virtual Symposium Exploring the North Korean Environmental

By | August 30, 2012 | No Comments

The Ecologic and the Politic, Nature and the Natural – An Virtual Symposium Exploring the North Korean Environmental 

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

IntroductionIt is fair to say Sino-NK covers a great deal of ground in its day-to-day wrestling with and analysis of DPRK related affairs, more than most dedicated to examining the reality of North Korea. As a regular contributor to the site on the field of environmental issues, or the natural realm, it is a given that I see this reality as inclusive of the space of interaction between the institutions and society of the nation itself and the natural world within its area of national sovereignty. It is more than fair to say that such an environmentally-oriented space does not garner much comment within the wider community of academic, political, media or economic interests whose gaze rests on the northern half of the Korean peninsula, except perhaps when such interaction enters into or colours the realm of military/diplomatic security or the collapsist narratives.

Recently, external examiners of the DPRK have been treated to something of an object lesson in the role of the environment/nature within developing narrative frameworks through which the national governmental institutions and regime intend sustaining themselves in years to come. Instances during the funereal/mourning period for Kim Jong Il in which the environmental realm was incorporated into the process of commemorative practice/worship as much as any other human participant have been plain to see (KCNA, 2011) . In recent years the DPRK’s narrative of legitimacy and superiority has also begun to include elements of its perceived environmental awareness as well as denunciation’s of other nations failings in this regard ( KCNA, 2012).

Primary perhaps only to matters narrative and legitimatory, an even more important development in the relationship between the institutional/governmental/societal realms and that of nature within the DPRK has been the growing importance of economic or developmental projects rooted within natural or environmental practice.

North Korea’s Industrial Collapse Coincides with the Rise of the International Environmental  | The DPRK’s prior industrial and economic strategy was based on conventional heavy industry, chemicalisation and high levels of power use and utilisation. This system and its infrastructure collapsed in the early 1990s. This crisis and famine period’s sheer necessity – an unexpected opportunity – has allowed the institutions of the DPRK exposure to a theoretical/practical approach to industry and the economic completely alien to its own.

An approach to economic and industrial development and output that we might now categorise as “green capitalism” was both alien to the DPRK and utterly comfortable and recognisable. As a nation/regime, the DPRK has always had to function according to a paradigm of triangulative pragmatism, never possessing all the resources required for successful development or functionality.  Thus, North Korean actors have had essentially to engage outside partners or adopt alternative strategies in order to obtain such resources or work around their absence.

The arrival of NGO’s and academics proselytising a new approach to the generation of power – one based upon the utilisation of wind resources, based on the need for nations to adopt “low-carbon economics” in order to mitigate against climactic changes – must have been well received by the institutions of the power generation sector within the DPRK. After all, the disappearance of subsidised or free energy resources after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact had turned the DPRK into the ultimate low carbon economy, one for whom a low/no cost alternative to the problems of electricity supply would be gladly welcomed.

Equally within the agricultural sector, the arrival of external actors bringing news of the rise of organic agriculture in the West must have been received well, as it negated the need to find alternative, expensive supplies of fertiliser and chemicals on which the DPRK had previously relied so heavily, as well as in future providing opportunities for the generation of foreign currency in economic sectors to which DPRK were not subject to economic sanction by hostile powers.

North Korea within the Quest for International De-Carbonization |  For this author, the most recent development in the DPRK’s engagement of environmental approach and action has been the most important so far. Following on from this encounter with new theories and strategies related to economic de-carbonisation the DPRK has been engaging with some elements of the environmental infrastructure put in place by the outcome of the Kyoto protocol process and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s CDM system. The DPRK was the 149th nation to ratify the Framework Convention on Climate Change (on the 27th of April, 2005), since that date its institutions have been attempting to extract what surely, apart from the legitimative or positive narrative aspects, is the primary advantage to be gained from its signing, namely the access to the financial return open to it through the “carbon credit” element of the CDM system.

Being a comparatively reasonably populated and geographically sized nation, but one which owing to its economic and developmental situation in carbon emission terms punches some way below its theoretical weight, North Korea is, therefore, in a good position to extract financial advantage or leverage from the CDM.

However, as lucrative as the CDM system surely must be for North Korea, in order to participate in it a sovereign actor must be fully engaged and adept at the sort of bureaucratic expertise and justificatory practice which is a hall mark of modern capitalistic social democracies and their attendant corona of NGO’s and other external actors. The DPRK has in the past proven itself not to be particularly well versed, for understandable reasons, in elements of such instutional practice.  It has enjoyed little success in its attempts at registering economic or developmental projects under the UNFCCC system. Until now it seems, for as NK Economy Watch reported on the 16th of August, the DPRK had succeeded for the first time in meeting the conditions of registration and Hamhung Hydropower Plant Number One, was the first carbon credit earning project within the DPRK’s jurisdiction.

Such a development is reason enough (for this author at least), to justify the inclusion for the next week or so a series of postings on Sino-NK, forming something of a digital/virtual academic symposium focusing on the DPRK’s encounter with the environmental and the natural.

Outlining the Symposium Agenda | The policy hinge for these writings has already been demonstrated by the advance in institutional focus in North Korea necessary for success in its application to the UNFCCC. The focus on the environmental required for the success of that application is evident in other aspects of the DPRK’s institutional approach to the natural world and myself and other writers will engage with and analyse some of these aspects throughout the postings.

– In the real of practical environmental impacts, the DPRK’s strategy for the mitigation of the impacts of climactic change will be investigated as will projects for the conservation, protection and reintroduction of native of fauna.

– The environmental aspects of partition and separation on the Korean peninsula will be analysed through a comparative exercise focused on reclamative activity either side of the DMZ.

– Finally, the theoretical and academic realm will be engaged with in a piece focused on the problems utilising academic analysis sourced from conventional political ecological literatures and narrative within the context of the DPRK.

Scholarship and analysis on North Korea is, in the final analysis, extraordinarily rich: We can now sample from writings focusing on opera and theatre in the DPRK, the development of art and musical instruments, even the place of violence in North Korean children’s literature.  Yet even in this welcome analytical flood, to date, the environmental realm has received short shrift. Those participating in this week hope that changes somewhat in the time to come, and that for the next seven days or so interested parties can become within this field of interest and analysis, “fellow travellers.”

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  1. Great article. To nit-pick one small statement…

    “The arrival of NGO’s and academics proselytising a new approach to the generation of power – one based upon the utilisation of wind resources, based on the need for nations to adopt “low-carbon economics” in order to mitigate against climactic changes – must have been well received by the institutions of the power generation sector within the DPRK.”

    As one of the proselytizing faithful that worked on the North Korean energy sector for many years, I can say that the North Koreans were far from rapid converts to the hallowed faith of renewable energy. In the North Korean energy sector, as in many other areas, the preference was for high prestige solutions over those with real utility for the state. For example, North Koreans frequently requested expensive projects like tidal power generators, when they really needed small-scale hydro and wind projects, increased energy efficiency measures in the building sector, and a functioning electricity grid. For many North Korean energy authorities, it was not about adopting a new approach to power generation, it was another way to try and extract rents and high-profile technologies from the outside world. The functionality of this equipment had nothing to do with it.

    Remember, this is the country that wanted two light water reactors, but lacked a functional electricity transmission system.

  2. Hello ‘STB’, Thanks for pointing this out, perhaps you caught me in a short form sub-polemical/proselytising mood there! I should of course have qualified the words “well received” with the word “eventually”, as no policy development/change within this field is undertaken without accompanying bouts of confusion, prevarication, sheer misunderstanding, failure and rowing back on the entire idea. Not to forgetting the multiple agendas at play in most sectors and institutions, none of which are particularly visible or transparent. Anyway thanks again for pulling me up on that.

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