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Reforestation to lay groundwork for inter-Korean economic cooperation

With the two Koreas seeking ways to resume joint economic projects after last month’s inter-Korean summit, Seoul has chosen forestry to lay the groundwork for future projects.

South Korea will launch a task force specializing in research linked to inter-Korean forestation projects, according to Cheong Wa Dae, and the project is expected to be discussed with North Korea at high-level talks planned to be held within weeks.

Mountains in North Korea are believed to have suffered severe deforestation in recent decades, especially since a crippling famine swept through the impoverished nation in the mid- to late-1990s, when people cut down trees for fuel and to extend arable farmland. Lack of preparedness for natural disasters, including floods and forest fires, contributed to the damage. 

Mount Kumgang on North Korea`s east coast. (Yonhap)
Mount Kumgang on North Korea`s east coast. (Yonhap)

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon noted Thursday that a reforestation initiative is one of the few projects that the two Koreas can jointly pursue without violating layers of economic sanctions currently imposed on the North.

“Among the projects aimed at improving inter-Korean relations, we’re going to start those not subject to United Nations sanctions on North Korea as soon as necessary preparations are complete. A project helping with North Korea’s forestation is among them,” Lee said during a speech at the opening ceremony of a national arboretum in the southeastern county of Bonghwa in North Gyeongsang Province.

Lee added he would have the Korea Forest Service and regional governments work together to launch preparations for the forestation project.

While plans for the project have started rolling out, the reforestation is expected to be a challenging task with reports claiming that nearly one-third of North Korea’s woodlands have been destroyed due to fires and disasters.

Some 2.84 million of the North’s 89.9 million hectares of forest area were devastated in 2008, according to a report released by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification on Sunday, citing research by the National Institute of Forest Science. The ministry said that the research is conducted every decade and the latest figures will be announced by the end of the year.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has been voicing his hopes for reforestation of North Korean mountains since his rise to power in late 2011. Pyongyang has been focusing on its own reforestation plans, aimed at breaking the vicious cycle of deforestation and natural disasters such as floods and landslides, which could ultimately reduce food shortage.

In 2015, Kim stressed that such rocky and barren land should not be handed down to future generations, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea also opened a forestry science school at the elite Kim Il-sung University last March and broke ground for a forestry research institute in Pyongyang last month.

Although the Panmunjeom Declaration signed between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim made no specific mention of any joint economic projects -- with its main focus on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula -- both sides have continued to express willingness to revive the projects.

Key projects including a joint industrial complex in the border town of Kaesong and cross-border tours that have been shuttered or canceled due to the North’s relentless pursuit of its nuclear weapons program in recent years.

UN sanctions coupled with US-led pressure campaign continues to stand in the way of the resumption of such projects, as the sanctions aim to prevent hard currency from flowing into North Korea’s nuclear program.

South Korean officials and experts said that the revival of economic cooperation will involve further cooperation of the international community and that the summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim will have to take place before the two Koreas can start hammering out relevant details.

By Jung Min-kyung (