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Greening Efforts in North Korea: Peace Dividends Remain Elusive but Efforts must Endure

The latest geopolitical wrangle on the Korean peninsula hit me with particular disappointment as I ambled fruitlessly outside the sprawling North Korean embassy in the choicest diplomatic enclave in Beijing.  For two days I had waited to get my visa stamped for a visit to Pyongyang and a series of sites in the country where...

The promenade outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

The latest geopolitical wrangle on the Korean peninsula hit me with particular disappointment as I ambled fruitlessly outside the sprawling North Korean embassy in the choicest diplomatic enclave in Beijing.  For two days I had waited to get my visa stamped for a visit to Pyongyang and a series of sites in the country where afforestation efforts were being undertaken by the DMZ Forum – a US-based non-profit focused on environmental peace-building in the region. I was eager to visit the sites we had helped to reforest during the last 2 years in order to reduce soil erosion and provide more sustainable livelihoods for North Koreans. The proposed trip was also aimed at establishing a modern forestry school in the country whose academic institutions had been isolated for so long. Only last year, Professor K.C. Kim, an eminent retired entomologist from Pennsylvania State University and founder of the DMZ Forum had visited North Korea and met with academics at the Wonsan Agricultural and Forestry University and learned of their great need to have more foreign academics visit for research collaborations.

Such academic collaborations were not contradictory to the North Korean credo of Juche (self-reliance) but rather a means of furthering the resilience capacity of the country’s ecological system which inherently transcends borders. Our efforts at the forum were also aimed at furthering opportunity for North Korea to use existing international treaties and conventions to further environmental peace-building. Could we reimagine parts of the DMZ someday as a jointly administered UNESCO World Heritage site? Some years earlier architecture students I had worked with at Cornell University had even designed scenarios for how to green the DMZ through futuristic studio projects. Yet the shaded promenade speckled with persimmon trees near the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea’s (DPRK – North Korea’s official name) embassy in Beijing was the closest I got to seeing the greening of Kim Jong-Un’s country.

Chinese Checkers

The decision of the Chinese president Xi Jinping to visit Seoul in early July 2014 had a chilling impact on potential visits to North Korea by peacenik’s like myself during this period. Yet the timing of the Chinese president’s summit in Seoul  as well as the reaction from the DPRK was impossible to predict when I was planning the trip.  Mr. Jinping’s visit to South Korea showed the North that political allegiance had been trumped by economic expediency – it was the first time that a new Chinese leader visited South Korea before visiting North Korea. China remains unsettled by the leadership of 32 year-old Kim Jong–Un, especially after he had his uncle Jang Sung-Taek executed for “treason.” Mr. Sung-taek had been one of China’s closer allies in the regime.

No doubt the DPRK feels somewhat nostalgic about a bygone era when the world’s most populous country was one of its unwavering allies. The somber towering walls of the DPRK embassy in Beijing reflect this nostalgia where they are punctuated at one juncture by a small photographic exhibit behind a glass case. All the images in this exhibit are from the DPRK’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s when its human development indicators were higher than South Korea and the Cold War had warmed the Sino-Russian axis in its favour. That axis was shifting again and North Korea would likely be even further isolated. One tentative regional link for the DPRK might emerge from its former colonial power Japan, but only at a transactional level. A quid-pro-quo statement from Japanese Prime Minister Abe noted very recently that some potential relief in economic sanctions may be possible for information about Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Koreans many years ago.

Ambivalently anchored in the past, China and South Korea have repeatedly lamented Japanese colonialism of their lands and yet all 3 countries remain locked in an economic embrace that seems to transcend the acrid rhetoric of past grievances (Japan is among only 3 countries whose citizens can enter China visa-free for up to 30 days – the other two being Brunei and Singapore). How this perplexing geopolitical game of pride and prejudice had consumed my chance of visiting North Korea for a peace-building visit made me reflect further on the limits of well-intentioned citizen diplomacy.

Ecological and Economic Peace?

The potential for environmental issues to build trust and concord had motivated me to get involved in efforts such as the DMZ Forum. Within the Korean peninsula several projects have been proposed through the activities of the Forum such as setting up a peace park in the DMZ  given its high level of biodiversity or having it declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site by both countries. Conferences and Track 2 Diplomacy efforts have been occurring in this vein for many years. Even philanthropists like Ted Turner have granted celebrity appeal to such undertakings by making visits to the DPRK.  Yet a definitive outcome by which such “low green politics” could be elevated to the high politics of war and peace remains elusive.

Nevertheless, as I waited for my visa in Beijing, I learned of a glimmer of hope on the Northern border of the DPRK. In efforts to gain contact with local visitors to North Korea in Beijing, I met a Korean-Chinese businessman from the town of Yanji near the tri-border region between Russia, China and the DPRK. I learned that an estimated 2 million ethnic Koreans are citizens of China, particularly in the border region. Around 400,000 live in the Yanbian “Korean autonomous district” in China which has some modest level of autonomy from the Chinese government.  These Korean-Chinese use their multiple identities across the border by trading in the North Korean Rason Special Economic Zone (earlier called Ragin Sonbong). Many of them also have ties to South Korea for commerce and can be given a resident permit in South Korea if so desired.

The Rason special economic zone is a sort of “economic peace park” similar to the Kaesong Industrial complex near the DPRK’s side of the DMZ, where 123 mid-level South Korean companies employ around 53,000 North Korean workers (set up in 2002 as a peace gesture by the South). Yet unlike Kaesong, the main economic sector on the Northern frontier is natural products and services – blueberries, vegetables, fish and crustaceans. The region is also a growing tourist destination for mostly Chinese travelers who also visit the nearby sacred mountain Changbaishan (called Paekdu or Baekdu in Korean). This huge dormant volcano has an enchanting lake in its caldera is located right on the border between North Korea and China  and constitutes a designated biosphere reserve on the Chinese side. There are clearly opportunities available to develop this as a transboundary reserve with North Korea that is encouraged under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program.

Russia’s Role?

To add greater complexity, but possibly another cooperative nexus, Russia also shares a triborder in this region with China and North Korea. A rail link between the Russian town of Khasan and the port at Rajin in DPRK has been completed in 2013 and there is growing commerce between the two countries. There is also another tree planting site in the Baek-hat Ri region within DPRK that has been supported by the One Green Korea Movement (a church-based organization which has approval for its activities from the North Korean government).

Pondering new pathways to “creative diplomacy” (a term coined by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd), I wonder if Russia might provide a window for peace-building through economic and ecological pathways in the region. The relationship between Russia and DPRK is still strong as exemplified by the latter’s beleaguered airline still flying Russian planes, including some recent acquisitions of the latest version of the Tupolev TU 204. Russia has also been remarkably active on various environmental treaties in which the DPRK has also shown some surprising interest. Research by Dr. Benjamin Habib at La Trobe University in Australia and Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters from Leeds University documents this surprising engagement by the DPRK, particularly around climate change diplomacy. The International Crane Foundation has also found willing partners in DPRK and Russia for its activities related to conservation habitat.

Russia has been a participant in the “Six Party Talks” and as efforts are made to revitalize these negotiations might it be opportune to hold a summit in this economically and ecologically valuable triborder region between DPRK, China and Russia? It would also be appropriate to expand the mandate of the talks beyond the nuclear issue in order to augment potential for trust and mechanisms for “creative diplomacy” to emerge.  With the conflagration in Ukraine hurting its ties with the “West,” Russia may find it appealing to play a more constructive role in the hitherto intractable Korean conflict.

Making Human Connections

Ultimately, efforts at citizen diplomacy are constrained by human contact. In the case of North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world, both physical and electronic communication is highly limited. For me visiting the country as an environmental academic was important to make the connection with North Koreans on a substantive professional level rather than as a tourist on a stage-managed tour-group sojourn (for which a visa would have been far easier to procure).

Yet in the current climate of world affairs, the DPRK remains enigmatic and capricious in allowing such professional contact. With my dual nationality as a Pakistani and an American I was led to believe that my visa process on my Pakistani passport would be more easily approved (a rare case where the Pakistani passport was more valuable than a US passport since Pakistan has positive ties with North Korea)! Yet in the great drama of international relations academics like me are diminutive players regardless of nationality.

Two years ago I visited Cuba, another pariah state for the West, on a similar mission of environmental peace-building. For that visit I had to get a US State department licensed organization to sponsor my visit (The Vermont Institute for the Caribbean) to ensure compliance with the US sanctions against Cuba (all US citizens regardless of dual nationality must abide by these rules or face hefty fines). From conversations with scholars in Cuba I learned that the greater influx of US visitors and research organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the MacArthur Foundation is making a palpable difference in bridging the cognitive and emotional gulf between the two countries.

I remain hopeful that an incremental détente and departure from historical inertia will eventually occur on the Korean peninsula.  Irrespective of one’s political views, a novel confluence of ecological and economic pathways towards reconciliation must be continuously pursued.  Perhaps someday I will get to visit the groves of conifers in North Korea which we have helped to plant and support through the DMZ Forum’s activities. However, what matters most is that communication channels, and particularly flow of environmental conversations, is enabled by all sides. Ecological knowledge will undoubtedly nourish our common humanity and may lead to a broader context for peace to emerge in this troubled terrain.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.