North Korea’s regime has increased the power of the country’s forest management departments to assist in a “greenification” scheme of the barren nation, but the campaign is facing setbacks as central authorities push ahead with planting unsuitable trees despite warnings from local officials, sources said.
Last year, authorities in North Korea launched a campaign of “nationwide greenification,” sources said, with the primary goal of planting trees to replenish soil nutrients and prevent erosion in the country, which has been ravaged by decades of environmental degradation.
As part of the campaign, authorities enlarged the size of state-run tree nurseries and fields for planting seedlings, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently announced that the public should “not lament the denudation of the forests, and organize trees species systematically and economically.”
The central government increased the size of each province’s forest management department, which had formerly been considered a hardship placement because of environmental neglect, and elevated its status to that of other state organs, a source from Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Provincial forest management departments have now become popular enough to compete against other organs of power,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Forest planning experts who had not been treated well before are now eligible as provincial committee members,” he said.
As part of the “greenification” campaign, the government significantly increased the supervisory power of the forest management departments, granting them control of tree nurseries and seedling production, sources said.
“This is because Kim Jong Un’s regime needs the agency to not only design forest restoration projects, but also determine how much land should be used, and even what species of trees should be planted on it,” the source said.
The forest management departments soon realized that existing plans, which relied on whatever saplings were available, had to be revamped to incorporate criteria such as species of tree, quality of soil and local climate into the planting process, a source from North Hamgyeong province told RFA.
Tree species requested by the forest management departments to suit their local conditions require at least three years to produce, the source said, but central authorities—eager to meet targets set as part of the “greenification” campaign—are demanding that the planting campaign proceed regardless.
“Even though it will take additional time, [local authorities] have to organize the forest scientifically and systematically, according to the requests of the forest management departments,” he said.
“There are lots of complaints to the forest organizing committees [under the forest management departments] pushing people to plant trees even though the correct species by region have not been produced.”
According to the Seoul-based Korea Environment Institute, forest cover in North Korea dropped by 17 percent from the 1970s to the late 1990s.
Following the collapse in the early 1990s of the Soviet Union—which provided discounted oil to its communist ally—oil imports into North Korea dropped by more than half, while the use of firewood for heating more than doubled.
The Soviet Union had also provided fertilizer to the North, and when farmers were unable to produce enough food, forest area was cleared to make room for additional farmland.
Only 44.95 percent of North Korea was covered by forest in 2012, according to the World Bank, which says that the area has decreased every year since 2000, when 57.58 of the nation was forested.
Residents of the impoverished country routinely scavenge any organic material they can find for food, fuel or animal food, leaving little that contributes nutrients to the soil.
Without trees to hold the soil, rains frequently lead to flash floods and landslides in the country.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.