Looking northward from South Korea’s observatories along the Demilitarized Zone, you will see North Korean mountains almost bare. It is said that many defectors who fled the North on boats felt relieved to know that they had entered South Korean waters upon seeing coastal hills with dense forests.
As of the end of 2008, North Korea had lost nearly one-third of its forests, according to U.N. estimates. Among the 180 countries surveyed by a U.K.-based risk consulting company in 2011, it had the third-highest deforestation rate behind only Nigeria and Indonesia.
In the latest alarm over the rapid deforestation in the communist state, data released this week by Global Forest Watch showed that North Korea destroyed a total area of forest about 18 times the size of Manhattan between 2000 and 2013. The North saw 160,515 hectares of forest disappear over the cited period, while creating just 13,680 hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012, according to the figures from the online forest monitoring and alert system run by the Washington-based World Resources Institute.
North Korea’s deforestation has become rampant, with people indiscriminately felling trees for firewood and turning forests into terraced farmland to grow crops.
The severe deforestation is cited as one of the major reasons for the devastating floods that have hit the North in recent years. Furthermore, it could lead to problems with the forest ecosystem on the Korean Peninsula and the environment in Northeast Asia.
Thus, it is natural that calls for efforts toward reforesting the North have been mounting in the South. There is a growing sense of urgency on the need to take concrete steps as the perception spreads that further delay in undertaking the project will raise costs and amplify adverse impacts on the environment. Based on current conditions, it will take about 32 trillion won ($29 billion) to plant 4.9 billion trees needed to reforest the North, according to estimates by the Korea Forest Service, a government agency in Seoul.
In this vein, it was timely that an organization aimed at expediting the forestation work was launched in Seoul on Wednesday with the joining of private experts from the two Koreas and China. The group is expected to lay the groundwork for government-level consultations and wider international cooperation.
The forestation project could enable South and North Korea to reap mutually beneficial effects in a tangible manner at a time when political and military confrontations limit full-fledged cooperation. South Korea has been a rare case of successful reforestation over the past decades.
Seoul remains cautious on providing the North with any significant scale of aid. Speaking to reporters after a recent forum on inter-Korean affairs, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae expressed a negative view of a civilian move toward sending 20,000 tons of fertilizer to the North. But more flexibility may be shown in discussing a forestation plan.
It is still true that North Korea’s successful reforestation will ultimately require a comprehensive range of measures, including food and energy assistance, which will be made possible only after Pyongyang gives up its nuclear ambitions.
Satellite images show the North colored dirt brown in a season when the South is all green with foliage. The two Koreas’ full-blown cooperation and eventual reunification will be visible from space as the peninsula becomes one uniform color.