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Severe deforestation in N. Korea

Posted November. 26, 2011 06:02,   


When former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld headed the Pentagon, he had a satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula at night on a wall in his office. In the picture, the southern half of the peninsula was bright with lights while the northern half was dark. The night view of the peninsula put electricity-strapped North Korea in stark contrast with the affluent South Korea. The photo can be named “Division of Light.” Kim Yong Sun, a secretary of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party in charge of South Korean affairs and a powerful member of the North Korean leadership, could not hide his surprise in 2000 in seeing South Korea bright with lights while flying from Jeju Island to Seoul on a helicopter.

The color of land in the two Koreas also shows the scars of the divided nation. Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consulting company, announced that deforestation in North Korea was the third worst in the world after Nigeria and Indonesia. By contrast, the U.N. rated South Korea’s forestation as the only successful case after World War II. Park Jong-hwa, a professor of environmental studies at Seoul National University, said that judging from NASA`s satellite images, 13,878 square kilometers or 11.3 percent of North Korean territory comprised deforested mountains. In seasons when all of South Korea is green with foliage, the North`s land in satellite images are spotted with brown dirt land. The Korea Forest Service of South Korea estimates that reforesting North Korea will require 4.9 billion trees.

Many North Korean defectors who fled the North on boats say they felt relieved to know that they had arrived in the South upon seeing coastal mountains with dense forests. Looking northward from an observatory on Mount Odu near the Demilitarized Zone, one will see North Korean mountains all bare. The North’s deforestation is caused by wanton reclamation of land and logging due to poverty. Hungry North Korean residents dig up mountain foothills to make cultivation fields for food and even cut young trees for use as firewood in winter. Deforestation causes frequent flooding and droughts as shown by severe flood damage in North Korea.

South Korea achieved a miracle in making its territory green with trees thanks to a large-scale forestation drive in the 1960s and 70s. Trees grow well in the South and there is no reason they cannot take root in the North. North Korea can use South Korea`s knowhow in reforestation if it wants to. On orders from President Lee Myung-bak, the government has finished reviewing its plan to assist reforestation of its northern neighbor. Many South Korean civic groups are preparing to help the North’s reforestation. But North Korea seems not so interested.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)