Korea must restore environmental balance, says UN

North Korea needs to take urgent measures to protect and restore its countryside, according to the region's first ever official environmental assessment.

Carried out by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and North Korea’s national co-ordinating council for the environment, the report revealed that urgent attention must be paid to the country’s neglected environment and its over exploitation of natural resources.

Executive director of UNEP, Klaus Toepfer, stated with confidence that, following the report’s publication, Korea’s environmental problems could now be resolved: “By bringing together the available environmental information and identifying priority issues, the report will help strengthen monitoring and assessment, policy setting, action planning and resourcing in North Korea.”

Particular priority issues identified by the report included forests, water, air, land and biodiversity, using a “pressure-state-response” methodology.

The assessment noted that, while three quarters of the country were forested, these were mainly on steep slopes over 20 degrees. Over the past decade, these slopes have been heavily deforested by timber production, a doubling of firewood consumption, the conversion of hilly land to agricultural production, wild fires and insect attacks associated with drought.

While relatively rich in water resources, the report also states that Korea faces challenges over maintaining the quality of its water supplies. In recent years, levels of water pollution have increased considerably, and high amounts of waste are being dumped into the Taedong River by local factories and plants, as well as domestic sewage.

Korea also has a strong reliance on coal for power production, industrial processes and domestic heating, which the assessment shows has created serious air pollution problems. A projected five times increase in coal use by 2020 has emphasised the urgent need for clean coal combustion, exhaust gas purification technology, increased energy efficiency and an expansion of renewable energy alternatives.

There are also concerns about the state of the land, which has been over-farmed with excessive use of chemical fertilisers, making the ground acidic and less fertile, as well as the conservation of endangered species living in the region, including the Amur leopard, Asiatic black bear and Siberian tiger.

However, the Korean government is currently strengthening the legal control over chemical dumping, adopting a “polluter pays principle”, and other initiatives including increasing hydropower generation and establishing new tree nurseries through a national tree planting campaign.

Mr Toepfer concluded that, while there were many improvements to be made to the quality of North Korea’s environment, they were on track to try to meet them. He said:

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has shown its willingness to engage with the global community to safeguard its environmental resources, and we must respond so it can meet development goals in a sustainable manner.”

By Jane Kettle

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