Natural disasters are a feature of the Korean Peninsula, especially flooding. Massive floods hit Seoul in 1983, for instance, when I was in the British Embassy. As British charge d’affaires in Pyongyang from 2001-2002, I, along with other diplomats, witnessed the aftermath of more floods that devasted many parts of the east coast. Areas that were badly hit in 2001 suffered further damage in 2002, even before the earlier devastation had been cleared away.
I, therefore, read with interest Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein’s piece on the way North Korea has handled recent disasters. He is certainly right that this year’s response to the regular natural disasters that strike the Korean Peninsula has seen a greater acknowledgment than in the past of the scale of the damage caused by flooding and a swift response, with Kim Jong Un having even visited some of the areas affected, calling for greater efforts to handle the situation.
I would also agree that the country has a long way to go, although given how the same conditions can overwhelm both South Korea and China on a regular basis, it is hard to see how much more North Korea is likely to be able to achieve. Moreover, improvements in the way the North has handled natural disasters can be traced back to twenty years ago.
Structural Constraints to Better Responses
Improved public handling of natural disasters is one thing, overcoming difficult structural problems that cause severe flooding and damage is quite another. Deforestation is hardly something that has developed only since the famine years of the 1990s. Traditional Korean housing’s use of the ondol system for cooking and heating consumes massive amounts of wood in a land where the growing area for trees is severely limited. Early travelers remarked on the barren hills of Korea. Efforts at reforestation under the colonial period were undermined by the demand for wood during the Pacific War.
Efforts were made after 1945 to remedy the situation—just near the Munsu-dong diplomatic quarter (compound) in Pyongyang, for instance, there is a plaque marking the spot where Kim Il Sung planted a tree in 1946 to get the campaign moving. But then came the Korean War which again left the hills barren. After the war, there were several reforestation attempts, but in spite of often draconian methods to stop the destruction of trees, the need for fuel and cultivatable land always won out. As winter approached in late 2001, we drove past soldiers who were supposed to enforce the rules against deforestation who were themselves cutting down young trees along the East-West Highway. They, too, needed to cook and heat their quarters.
Housing construction is indeed of poor quality and often badly sited. North Korean architects to whom I spoke in 2001 were well aware of how far they were behind other countries in standards of construction. At that time, they sought assistance from the United Kingdom in improving the quality of training but the British Government, however, refused their request out of concern that North Korean architects, reflecting Kim Jong Il’s interests, had the wrong priorities. (I believe that for a time some young architects went to France for training but paid their own way.)
Without vast, dry flatlands, people inevitably build in dangerous places. North Korea is not alone in constructing houses on flood plains, however; every year in Europe, for example, damage occurs to property because the purpose of such areas is ignored. Flood plains, sometimes called water meadows, were designed to absorb the water from overflowing rivers, but the temptation to build on flat land is strong, even where there are regular floods, especially when the alternative is far away and up a mountain. Thus, this year, heavy rains in Britain on several occasions this year flooded some houses two or even three times. Global warming may have also changed the nature of the rains, which seem to be much heavier than in the past and further exacerbates the problem.
The Past as Prologue
There is no doubt that, by openly acknowledging there are disasters, the government has been better able to handle them. It is also true that new technology helps. The country’s intranet and the use of smartphones have made it easier to transmit information in real time. These improvements date back, however, to the period of 1998-2002.
When I was posted in Pyongyang, one of the few things I watched with any regularity on North Korean television was the weather forecasts—which says something about the excitements of the rest of what was on offer! This was unadorned information, quite distinct from the news. Forthcoming storms would be announced with no pretense about how bad they might be.
More importantly, when a natural disaster struck, the army was usually mobilized to provide assistance, just as in many other countries. Driving back from Wonsan in early autumn 2001, we were passed by streams of army trucks carrying military construction teams and building materials for flood-hit communities. When floods struck once more in 2002, we again saw the army coming to the rescue.
At that time, there also appeared to be the development of civil society, with the North Korean Red Cross rather than the government assuming some responsibility for providing aid to the civilian population. Moreover, some members of this organization were aware of what the Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies did in other countries at times of disaster and were quite forthcoming in discussions about their hopes of doing the same. I do not know whether that hope survived, but drawing on their own experiences of offering assistance during the famine years, the North Korean Red Cross appeared to have persuaded the authorities to allow them to act in a quasi-autonomous way.
One example of this was in 2002, I was proudly told by a senior member of the Red Cross that one of their first acts was to take over the distribution of boats for disaster purposes, a program apparently started by the state some time previously. Prior to the Red Cross involvement, many boats had ended up far from areas where they might be useful, displayed with pride in mountain villages where they were never used. The Red Cross was allowed to reclaim these boats and distribute them where they were needed. Perhaps a small beginning but nevertheless a sign that even then, the government was coming to see the need for better disaster handling.
And the Red Cross was not the only such body—the Korean Association for Supporting the Disabled, established in 1998 (later renamed the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled), was also carving out a quasi-independent status. Both organizations viewed their role as separate from government.
It is easy to see North Korea as exceptional but, in many ways, it is just another country. People are optimistic in the face of adversity. Why do people build in earthquake zones? “Well, maybe there will not be a big one for many years.” So, the river flooded last year? “Well, it might not do so this year,” seems to be a widespread human attitude. When North Korea shows signs of what seems to be change in a sensible direction, which it clearly has done this year, perhaps we should welcome that, rather than noting it has a long way to go.