By all accounts, this year’s flooding and typhoon damage in North Korea have been worse than usual. Yet, there are several signs that the government’s disaster prevention system has actually improved significantly over the past few years. However, to create a truly resilient and sustainable disaster response capability, the government would need to dedicate substantially greater resources to this end, which appears unlikely for now.
Structural Problems Behind Disaster Damage
The regularly recurring damage to human life, property and crops from natural disaster reflects poor governance, resource scarcity and structural problems:
- Deforestation: A lack of energy resources and food has led to tree felling on a massive scale around the country since the famine of the 1990s. Left with little choice, people cut down trees to use for firewood and clear land for farming. Without enough trees to soak up excess rainwater, the soil in hills and hillsides erodes, often inundating both crops and residential housing. Kim Jong Un recognized this some years ago, in a 2015-speech on his campaign for reforestation.
- Substandard Farming Techniques: Riverbed and hillside farming pose another problem. Due to the lack of a reliable and efficient food supply, people use all available space to grow food, including the sides of riverbeds that simply vanish when the rivers flood, washing away a substantial number of crops. Moreover, typhoons and storm surges can push saltwater into both cities and agricultural fields, causing significant crop damage. These problems are not new. North Korean farmers, in fact, count on and calculate that a certain proportion of the harvest will be lost every year, and factor this into their planning.
- Poor Housing Construction: Poor-quality housing is another endemic issue, primarily outside of Pyongyang. Single-floor houses are often of particularly low quality. When soil erosion occurs, it can sweep away entire neighborhoods, leaving only minor signs of any dwellings ever having existed.
- Poor Planning: Farmers who plant crops along riverbeds will often set up housing dwellings (likely on their own initiative rather than state-planned) in the farming area, which are then often swept away along with the crops. When new, higher-quality dwellings are constructed, they are sometimes located far away from these opportunities for supplementary farming critical for people’s livelihoods.
The State’s Improvements in Disaster Management
While it is too soon to fully evaluate this year’s extensive damage and compare it to previous years, it appears that the North Korean government has begun to take disaster prevention more seriously than in the past. One important sign: For the first time, North Korean state TV showed dramatic images in real time of cities such as Wonsan completely submerged by water. Early warnings and information to the general public are one of the most central ways to save lives and minimize property damage in flooding, typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
In addition, according to one humanitarian aid professional with extensive experience in North Korea, the government has gotten much better in the past few years at informing at-risk communities about oncoming natural disasters. Radio broadcasts about the situation have become more frequent and timelier, and senior-level officials have ordered preparations in much more timely and thorough ways than in the past. Personnel throughout the system seem to be better prepared in advance—for example, soldiers have been better mobilized to improve response times and teachers have been more organized to improve student safety. Meteorologists have also been more proactive in monitoring and forecasting potentially adverse developments. In 2019, according to Daniel Wallinder of the Red Cross, the government sent out mass text messages for the first time to warn of the oncoming Typhoon Lingling and stepped up work to reinforce waterways, though it is difficult to quantify the full extent of this activity throughout the country.
These measures seem to have been taken within the framework of a government disaster management capability plan for 2019-2030 (the “National Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy”). It sets out relatively ambitious goals for community preparedness and information systems for disaster readiness, and its emphasis on communities far from Pyongyang is promising, as the capital city always receives first priority in any public investment. It also highlights vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, who are often overlooked in North Korean government priorities, and emphasizes better interagency cooperation, which has been hampered by inadequate communication. The plan also establishes relatively specific metrics for progress. By the beginning of the next decade, it aims to show quantitatively demonstrable improvements in reducing mortality and material loss from natural disasters. Problematically, the plan does not make realistic assessments of the systemic reasons for North Korea’s extreme vulnerability to natural disasters.
Although many measures to date to improve disaster management capabilities may seem more formal and bureaucratic than practical, they do show that the state is taking the problem more seriously. A State Committee for Emergency and Disaster Management has been established, reportedly at a relatively high level, to coordinate the changes. The state has also adopted a host of new laws for disaster preparedness over the past few years. The crucial thing to watch is how the government’s plans are further implemented—specifically, its success in translating paper plans into real capabilities. However, without systemic and sweeping improvements to economic and agricultural management, there will be a limit to how much the government can alleviate natural disaster damage. To achieve truly transformational change in disaster management capacity, the state will need to invest sizeable material resources. As of now, the prospects for this seem dim.
I am grateful to Bernhard Seliger, Daniel Wallinder and one humanitarian aid worker for their insights on this topic. All opinions and errors belong solely to the author.
South Korea, obviously much wealthier and with a much higher level of governance, is subject to virtually the same weather conditions but rarely suffers damage at all comparable to that of North Korea.
I am grateful to a source with extensive experience in humanitarian aid work in North Korea, with farming communities among others, for pointing this out.