The North Korean (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) government would appear to have a compelling prima facie self-interest in participating in the global climate change mitigation and adaptation project centred on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Capacity-building incentives that feed into the leadership perpetuation and state survival imperatives of the North Korean government represent the most likely explanation for North Korea’s interaction with the UNFCCC. Environmental vulnerabilities matter, because they could threaten the control of the Kim government.
North Korea’s flirtation with state failure during the Arduous March period of the mid-1990s illustrates this relationship. This period’s energy shortages, food insecurity, vulnerability to natural disasters and withering export income are pivotal to understanding the ongoing weakness of the DPRK economy. It therefore stands to reason that greenhouse gas abatement, capacity building in both the agricultural and energy sectors, and exploration of new sources for foreign currency revenue could be logical components of the North Korean government’s plans to mitigate against this weakness.
As early as August 2002, the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency warned about the danger of ‘whimsical’ weather patterns and repeated natural disasters attributable to global warming. More recently, the DPRK government has released two detailed reports — its 2012 Environment and Climate Change Outlook and its Second National Communication to the UNFCCC in 2013 — that document North Korea’s particular vulnerabilities to climate change and environmental degradation. Outside observers say climate change impacts are likely to interact perversely with pre-existing weaknesses in the political economy of the North Korean state.
Evidence from treaty compliance reports, international agency publications, and secondary source material suggests four possible motivations for North Korea’s participation in the UNFCCC. Of these, the strongest probability is that North Korea is using the UNFCCC as a vehicle for capacity-building projects designed to increase agricultural output and build the resilience of the agricultural system to disaster events. There is also a strong probability that North Korea is free riding on the UNFCCC as a vehicle for obtaining foreign assistance to upgrade its energy production and transmission infrastructure.
The probability of the other two motivations is less certain. There is a weak possibility that North Korea’s high vulnerability to climate change impacts provides its government with a compelling incentive for UNFCCC participation, although free riding on the treaty regime seems the more plausible explanation. Similarly, the evidence that North Korea is utilising the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol primarily as a vehicle for generating foreign currency income is also weak. Though a connection cannot be ruled out, the miniscule revenue potential of the DPRK’s suite of, CDM projects do not make for a compelling justification.
Where capacity building is concerned, there is a strong congruence between the overarching goals of the UNFCCC regime and the systemic maintenance needs of the North Korean government, which helps to explain why it is party to the UNFCCC treaty. Taking advantage of the numerous capacity-building opportunities within the treaty makes sense from a systemic consolidation perspective. This could enhance the government’s domestic legitimacy by providing tangible evidence that the government is responding to the needs of its citizens, while compliance with the treaty could also bolster its claim that it is a constructive international actor.
Bolstering regime legitimacy has currency as an explanation at a time when the North Korean government is trying to manage the transformative influence of emerging economic and social forces. It is attempting to attract foreign investment into its four special economic zones and 19 economic development zones, while also attempting to maintain control over a growing nouveau riche entrepreneurial class who have accrued wealth through the advancing marketisation of the North Korean economy. This provides a window of opportunity for the international community to influence the North Korean state — if external players are willing to adopt a more holistic view of security in relation to the DPRK.
In an earlier piece in East Asia Forum I suggested that environmental engagement with North Korea is relatively de-politicised and that the carefully nurtured cooperative relationships that have developed over time between UN agencies, NGOs and the North Korea government hold promise as vehicles for confidence-building. Environmental projects might open up a window for engagement that concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation have slammed shut.
At present, the most promising avenues for environmental engagement with the DPRK exist via international institutions and treaty regimes, such as the UNFCCC, and other notable multilateral environmental agreements, including the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
The future of cross-DMZ, inter-Korean environmental cooperation appears less promising. Despite a rhetorical commitment by the Lee Myung-bak administration to further environmental cooperation, and sophisticated South–North ‘green détente’ proposals by sections of the policy community in Seoul, Park Geun-hye’s government has cooled on the idea because of fears that food and energy-related capacity-building will bolster the North Korean military rather than ordinary North Koreans. Even with a willing engagement partner in the Blue House, it remains to be seen how receptive the North Korean government would be to the full spectrum of environmental engagement.
North Korea’s changing climate of environmental cooperation is republished with permission from East Asia Forum