North Korean forests still degraded a decade after famine
Forests of North Korea still remain widely degraded after the nation’s so-called “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s prompted a destructive logging of woodlands nationwide, a defector from the North testified.
North Korean forests had been relatively well-maintained until the famine hit the country from 1995 to 1997, allegedly claiming at least 1 million lives. As the government rationing system faltered, North Koreans scrambled to find firewood and gather crops by clearing the forests, said the defector who went by the alias, Kang Dae-gyu, in a lecture hosted by the Korea Forest Service (KFS) on Aug. 9.
“Even until the end of the 1980s, trees abounded in mountains, and people had no reason to go into them,” said Kang, 45, who worked in forestry in the government of North Hamkyong Province until his defection to the South.
“However, after the socialist supply system became paralyzed, people cut down trees for firewood and cleared the mountains to resolve their food shortages,” he recalled. “Even high mountains were cleared up to their peaks.”
According to a 2011 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, North Korean forest cover significantly decreased to 47 percent of the total land area, or 5.66 million hectares, in 2010 from 68 percent in 1990, or 8.2 million ha. Some 127,000 ha of forests disappeared every year over the past 20 years, the report indicated.
As part of an effort to curb the rampant land clearing, the North Korean authorities conducted a nationwide survey on forests in 2001 and designated the mountains with a slope angle of less than 25 degrees as cooperative farms where logging was banned. Some residents paid a bribe in exchange for keeping their slash-and-burn fields, Kang said.
North Korea claims that it has designated a tree-planting period from March to May and that 100,000 ha of trees are being planted every year, although their survival rate is believed to be less than 30 percent.
According to the Basic Plan for Forest Rehabilitation in North Korea devised in 2009 by the KFS, 31.6 percent of the North Korean forests, or 2.84 million hectares out of 8.99 million ha, were degraded. The figure has more than doubled since 1999, when the extent of degraded forests amounted to 1.21 million ha.