How the Climate Crisis Could Further Destabilize North Korea | Opinion

Last week, the UN released its sixth assessment of the causes and consequences of climate change, stating unequivocally that human activities are driving an unprecedented rate of warming that is impacting life in every part of the globe. From wildfires to floods, the impact of such events can extend far beyond the areas that are directly affected, and policymakers should not ignore politically volatile, nuclear-armed states, where the cascading effects of climate change can have dramatic consequences. One key example is North Korea.

A recent study by the Woodwell Climate Research Center and the Council on Strategic Risks shows that climate extremes like heat, drought, and flooding will constrain the nation's already precarious ability to provide public goods for its population, compounding persistent security concerns and threatening to ignite intersecting crises on the Korean peninsula.

One primary issue of concern will be the effect of climate change on food security, which has been an issue for the country for years because of long-standing poor policy choices. At present, North Korea is facing a food crisis so severe that the government has been forced to release army rations. A perfect storm of back-to-back typhoons last fall, persistent drought this spring, an ongoing summer heatwave, and recent heavy rains have led to the current state of severe food insecurity, even prompting the Kim regime to issue a rare famine warning this spring.

Climate projections on agricultural yields indicate that rice and maize crop failures will become more likely along the Western coast (where the majority of these crops are currently grown) over the next decade. The overall effect is added stress on the food system.

North Korea
Workers plant rice at the Chongsan Cooperative Farm in the Kangso district of Nampho City on May 12, 2020. KIM Won Jin / AFP

Drought is partially to blame for the current food shortage, and by 2030, up to three additional months of severe drought are expected annually. An increase in extreme precipitation events is expected to accompany longer dry spells, as heavy rains fall in shorter periods of time, instead of being more spread out. Last summer saw flooding so severe in the agricultural region of Sariwon that Kim Jong Un made several visits to the area to survey the damage and oversee rebuilding efforts. By 2050, the current 1-in-100 year flood there is likely to become nearly twice as frequent. This summer, extreme precipitation and flooding have forced thousands in the northeastern part of the country out of their homes.

But extreme rain events will not only affect agriculture; they will also put military installations, and residential, commercial and transportation infrastructure at risk.

In the nation's capital of Pyongyang, the stability of bridges crossing the Taedong River during high water events is already a concern. By 2050, the likelihood of the current 1-in-100 year flood event is expected to increase threefold. Inland, flood-prone areas will continue to be at higher risk of inundation due to changes in extreme rainfall in the future, and coastal areas will face the additional risk of sea level rise, which is predicted to increase by about one foot by 2050. Damage from flooding to military facilities like the Yongbyon nuclear weapons facility could trigger the regime to alter its risk calculation for weapons production and deployment. The cascading effects from the diversion of resources away from civilian projects could also further destabilize the region.

Although floods in the coming years cannot be avoided, the harmful impacts of future disasters can be prevented, or at the very least, reduced. In this case, disaster risk reduction comes in the form of climate change adaptation. An appropriate first step would be to improve residential, commercial, and transportation infrastructure and riverine and coastal flood defenses. Beyond technical adaptations, a more transformational approach would include a careful look at the country's food system and its climate resilience—or lack thereof.

The societal effects from heightened food insecurity and damaged military and civilian infrastructure could be wide-ranging and grave. Cascading effects from climate change could ultimately disrupt regional stability, exacerbate underlying tensions, and introduce new escalatory pressures for countries in the region.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change in North Korea offers opportunities for cooperation in the region, both for future research—which is urgently needed to address these converging crises—and for policy development. Policy coordination among the United States and countries in the region will be crucial, and should include consideration of responses to different climate scenarios.

North Korea will bear significant risks from climate change, and these impacts add complexity to an already challenging international security dynamic. But North Korea is far from unique. Our research has also revealed converging climate and nuclear threats to the India-China border and the increasingly contested Arctic region.

The same message emerges from all of these studies: Officials must take a broader view of the nexus between climate change and security, and develop future strategies for climate mitigation and adaptation as a means to increase overall security––in the Indo-Pacific region and around the globe.

Catherine Dill is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Council on Strategic Risks

Alexandra Naegele, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

The views in this article are the writers' own.