Converging Crises in North Korea: Security, Stability and Climate Change

Author

Catherine Dill

Alexandra Naegele

Natalie Baillargeon

Monica Caparas

Dominick Dusseau

Madeleine Holland

Christopher Schwalm

Source(s)
Woodwell Climate Research Center

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, has adopted a posture of profound belligerence with regard to the international community, grounded in self-sufficiency (tempered by dependences on China and select others), and a nuclear arsenal which successive leaders have prioritized over the needs of its people.

North Korean citizens, starved of both nutrition and information, may not be aware of the fragility of their situation. What is clear is that their livelihoods, and potentially the stability of the regime, are vulnerable to impending climate change.

This report, part of a series looking at the nexus between climate change and security in and between nuclear-armed states, surveys major climate effects in North Korea, with regard to how they may influence the stability of the Kim regime and regional dynamics.

Impending climate change could exacerbate North Korea's already precarious ability to provide public goods for its population and thus maintain regime stability, multiplying threats for the Korean peninsula and the entire region.

A Shared Security Issue

Long-term regime stability is a perennial concern in North Korea, which regularly threatens its neighbors and the United States. Climate impacts may weaken the ability of the Kim regime to deliver basic public services and governance functions, such as provision of food, shelter, safety, and energy.

Multiple climate impacts will likely introduce food insecurity, damage infrastructure, induce migration, and constrain access to food and resources. Citizens will bear a disproportionate share of the burden. These stresses could potentially create pockets of domestic upheaval that could negatively influence general stability. The implications for regional security, including an escalatory conflict leading to nuclear weapons use, are complex and concerning.

Climate Impacts

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity has been a persistent humanitarian concern in North Korea for decades due to poor planning, deforestation, and substandard farming techniques. A recent USDA study identified North Korea as one of the most food-insecure countries in the world, with more than 59% of the population suffering food insecurity in 2020.

Damaging rains in 2020 caused a reduction in yields, and in 2021, after all major NGOs had left North Korea, Kim Jong Un publicly and starkly warned of a potential famine. Looking forward, climate-related disasters are expected to compound existing food security, nutritional deficiencies, and humanitarian conditions. Poor management of the resulting agricultural and economic crisis may increase migration or spark other small crises.

North Korea’s breadbasket may struggle to supply historical quantities of rice.

A preponderance of the main food crops, rice and maize, are grown in South Hwanghae, South Pyŏngan, and North Pyŏngan provinces. Changes in precipitation and temperature will shift growing conditions inland in these provinces.

In both 2017 and 2019, serious droughts and economic sanctions led to devastating food shortages.

Climate projections indicate that areas of the South Hamgyŏng and North Pyŏngan provinces, which cultivate a combined 38% of the country’s rice and 30% of its soybeans, will experience up to an additional 3 months of severe drought each year by 2035.

Climate projections show rice and maize yield failures will become more likely along the Western coastline, though less likely in inland areas, by 2030. But due to the mountainous topography of inland North Korea, it is unlikely the breadbasket will shift completely to inland provinces to adapt to climatic changes.

Flooding

North Korea is at risk for both inland and coastal flooding. Residential, commercial and transportation infrastructure, agricultural facilities, and military installations are increasingly at risk for flooding. Mitigating these impacts will tax scarce resources and could precipitate internal conflicts.

Inland, North Korea will experience significant intensification of extreme rainfall due to climate change. Although seasonal flooding is common, the increased precipitation will translate into larger floods that happen more frequently. Deforestation, which amplifies flood risk, will also contribute to the flooding challenge.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, North Korean sea levels will rise by 0.3 meters by 2050. Approximately 553,000 people in coastal areas, and critical infrastructure on which they depend, are expected to be impacted annually by floods exacerbated by sea level rise by 2050.

Inland Flooding

This study models inland flooding at three locations:

  •     Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center
  •     Pyongyang, the country’s capital
  •     North Hwanghae Province

Analysis of these locations provides a basis for assessing the security implications of climate change in North Korea.

Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center

The Yongbyon Nuclear Complex is a primary location for fissile material production. The facility, situated on the Kuryong River, houses key components of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, including an intermittently operated 5-megawatt electrical nuclear reactor (5MWe) for plutonium production; an experimental light water reactor (ELWR) under construction; a radiochemical laboratory for reprocessing spent reactor fuel; and a uranium enrichment plant, as well as many other ancillary functions necessary for a nuclear weapons program.

The 5MWe reactor and the ELWR are the most proximate to the Kuryong River, which serves as a water source for cooling. Seasonal flooding already occurs along the Kuryong River.

Climate change increases the potential for severe flooding. If not properly anticipated, such flooding could damage the coolant pumps and their associated power systems, or the pipes that transfer water from the Kuryong River, potentially affecting the ability to operate the reactor safely.

Pyongyang

As the country’s capital and most populous city, Pyongyang is an important political, economic, and cultural center for the Kim regime. Much of the critical infrastructure it houses is under the Korean People’s Army control. Thus, flooding in Pyongyang has strategic implications.

Flood control options for the Taedong River, which runs through the city, are limited. During the 2020 rainy season, bridge traffic in Pyongyang was halted twice out of concern for bridge stability. Current 1-in-100 year flood events (a flood event that has a 1% chance of occurring each year) will become 1-in-34 year events by 2050.

North Hwanghae Province

North Hwanghae is one of North Korea’s primary agricultural regions, and it will be susceptible to increased inland flooding. Indeed, in 2020 the North Korean regime publicly warned of potential crop failures stemming from an unusually wet summer.

In August 2020, devastating floods in North Hwanghae Province induced multiple visits from Kim Jong Un, first to inspect the damage, and then to inspect residences that had been rebuilt.

Extreme flood risk is projected to almost double in this area -- a 1-in-100 year flood will become a 1-in-57 year flood event -- by 2050.

Sea Level Rise

This study modeled projected sea level rise for three coastal locations in North Korea:

  •     Nampo, a major port on the west coast located at the mouth of the Taedong River
  •     Wŏnsan, a large port and airport on the east coast with vital tourist interests
  •     Sinpo, a major naval base

Nampo

Existing flood barriers near Nampo at the West Sea Barrage at the mouth of the Taedong river protect against flooding and create both a large freshwater reservoir and additional arable land. The sea level risk is minimal. The regime’s infrastructure here serves as an example of how to mitigate risks to other coastal areas.

Wŏnsan

Unlike at Nampo, no significant flood barriers are present at the port in Wŏnsan, resulting in higher flooding risk. Wŏnsan is important to the North Korean tourism industry, and the airport and adjacent beach have been used for missile and artillery testing. Inundation here could disrupt these activities as well as critical supply chains, many of which provide a crucial source of revenue for the regime.

Sinpo

Within the next three decades, the Sinpo Naval Base, a major installation that also houses parts of the submarine ballistic missile program, faces increased flooding risks.

In fact, many important military installations and strategic manufacturing facilities in coastal areas merit closer scrutiny. Adverse impacts at military installations necessitate changes to as well as a diversion of resources from civilian infrastructure.

In a worst-case scenario, such disruptions could induce adversaries to misinterpret climate mitigation efforts as a genuine change in military strategy.

Regional Instability

Although climate impacts in North Korea pose the most immediate threats to internal domestic control and regime stability, they may also exacerbate underlying tensions in the region and introduce points of escalation with foreign actors.

Increased flooding risk in particular may drive instability in North - South relations by introducing shared downstream effects and opportunities for destabilizing actions.

Several rivers in North Korea discharge into the sea along South Korea’s west coast as well as into the Imjin River along the border, and large discharges of excess water can adversely affect South Korea. Hwanggang Dam, near the border, is of particular concern.

In September 2009, the North Korean government released water through the Hwanggang Dam during a heavy storm, causing a flash flood in South Korea along the Imjin River which killed several people. While the two countries signed a dam release notification agreement, North Korea still engages in unannounced dam releases. Additionally, the North Koreans reportedly have used flooding as a cover for military provocations. These types of events serve as escalatory stressors in North - South relations.

Continued deterioration of living conditions for North Korean citizens could induce mass migration from the North to its neighbors.

While it is difficult to assess the breaking points, a conservative estimate of 30,000-50,000 migrants have left since the 1990s famine, predominantly to China and South Korea.

An increase in migration or defection attempts by genuine climate refugees would put political pressure on both North Korea and its neighbors. Given that China receives the most defections, the relatively stable relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang may face new strains.

Degradation in this bilateral relationship may have implications for broader regional dynamics, as North Korea could feel marginalized and seek to provoke additional tensions among neighbors with increased nuclear and conventional weapons buildup and testing.

Climate impacts may induce North Korea to alter weapons deployment or production, introducing ambiguity into regional expectations. If established production and deployment sites become unusable due to climate impacts, mitigation attempts for such infrastructure might be misperceived. If the regime feels particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, especially in comparison to South Korea or Japan, there might be a perverse incentive to increase the production of strategic weapons systems to demonstrate relative strength and resolve.

Climate change impacts also may open up new avenues of negotiation and cooperation among North Korea and regional allies on broader security issues. Food aid has served as a major lever during past nuclear negotiations, and assistance in building resilience and mitigating adverse climate impacts may also be an important carrot going forward.

Recommendations

Much work in understanding and mapping the climate impacts that North Korea will face in the coming decades remains to be done. Opportunities for the United States and allies in the Indo-Pacific region are currently limited, but more options may be illuminated by more granular research. Additional research on climate impacts to critical crops, major military sites, nuclear facilities, and commercial hubs in North Korea is needed.

One immediate recommendation is to work to restore NGO access to North Korea which has been severely curtailed since the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. NGOs likely will play a crucial role in both providing local observations and coordinating relief efforts.

Supporting global initiatives to increase climate resilience in North Korea should also be a priority. The DPRK appears to be open to international support for mitigation and adaptation. The United Nations Green Climate Fund (GCF) approved a project to develop a package of training and capacity building exercises for engagement with the GCF. This type of support could also increase transparency into North Korea more generally.

A longer term proposal could center on building a regional climate forum to address climate impacts on the Korean Peninsula. An informal forum dedicated to this issue could provide an opportunity for joint future research and cooperative monitoring of climate impacts as well as a venue for differentiating climate-related disruptions in times of heightened tensions.

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