Executive Summary

The two Koreas’ divergent growth and development paths resulting from political-economic or socioeconomic differences eventually have led to differences in environmental and ecological issues, North and South Korea typifying the problems facing poor and advanced countries respectively. Putting their differences aside, the two Koreas share certain environmental risks that derive from their common geographical location: the Korean Peninsula. The most representative of the many environmental risks they share is climate change. This report aims to explore North Korea’s domestic and foreign policies in response to the crisis of climate change. In particular, it focuses on North Korea’s climate change policy under the Kyoto Protocol system, which had set the first rules and norms for international cooperation coping with climate change since the launch of the UNFCCC.

Every climate policy is somewhat related to adaptation and mitigation, which the UNFCCC highlights as the two fundamental response strategies to address climate change issues. While mitigation looks at limiting climate change by reducing GHG emissions and by enhancing the use of clean and renewable energy resources, adaptation aims to lessen the adverse impacts of climate change through a wide-range of system-specific actions. The priority of North Korea’s policy toward climate change has been to minimize direct damage from natural calamities caused by extreme weather events and to address food shortages and water management, which are indirect offshoots of natural disasters. In short, North Korea’s approach to national capacity-building for climate change has been an adaptation policy rather than mitigation policy. A lack of mitigation policy in North Korea seems rational: North Korea’s GHG emission levels have been quite low due to its decrepit economy and absolute energy shortages. North Korea’s adaptation policy still appears to have focused on land management and restoration of a wrecked environment for the construction of basic infrastructure. North Korea has assumed an unusually active attitude toward international regimes and cooperation related to climate change. This was mainly because the Kyoto Protocol system under the UNFCCC-centered international climate change regime was driven by the principles of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and Polluter Pays (PP). These principles of the Kyoto Protocol system made North Korea a beneficiary country that would receive financial and technological assistance from advanced economies, and the North Korean regime was able to transform its foreign policy to make good use of the international system under the name of the country’s climate change diplomacy.

North Korea’s impoverished economic conditions render the implementation of its climate change policy difficult without international cooperation or assistance. Hence, it has been heavily reliant on assistance and aid from international organizations or individual advanced economies in order to strengthen its national capacity-building. Yet, it remains questionable whether North Korea has sincerely followed international norms and efforts in global cooperation in responding to climate change as much as it has sincerely responded to domestic natural disasters since the Arduous March in the mid-1990s, or deliberately used the Kyoto Protocol system for its own diplomatic interest in securing international aid. For one, while North Korea actively sought financial and technological assistance from advanced economies based on the principles of CBDR and PP, it is doubtful whether it faithfully fulfilled the “common responsibilities” that were due from Non-Annex I Parties. In addition, doubts linger over the role of the NCCE (National Coordinating Committee on Environment), which has been responsible for the North Korean diplomacy and international cooperation on climate change, as well as the distribution of foreign aid during the Kyoto Protocol era.

The Kyoto Protocol’s dichotomy of one side taking responsibility for its past wrongdoings and the other side receiving benefits for the current victimized outcomes almost came to an end, when the Paris Agreement was adopted by the world in 2015, with the launch of a post-Kyoto Protocol system, i.e., the New Climate System. From then on, all the Parties of the UNFCCC are subject to similar levels of binding responsibilities, and whether North Korea will continue to be active about its diplomacy and international cooperation on climate change under the post-Kyoto Protocol era is left to be seen. In other words, we will certainly be able to confirm North Korea’s sincerity toward international cooperation on climate change only when it is asked to take responsibility and make contributions.

The ramifications of climate change have been more serious for North and South Korea, the co-occupants of the Korean Peninsula, compared to the global average. Although they are bound to share the same ecological destiny, they have yet to even launch a discussion on climate change cooperation. Inter-Korean cooperation on climate change, mostly South Korea’s assistance or aid to tackle climate change in North Korea as well as the Korean Peninsula, was neither sustainable nor long-term—it was more like a one-off deal. In fact, inter-Korean bilateral cooperation has focused more on the South providing the impoverished North with humanitarian assistance and afforestation funds—in other words, hefty funding—than on the two Koreas working together to achieve the common goal of responding to the threats of climate change on the Korean Peninsula. The two Koreas need to propose and pursue initiatives that are for the common good of the Korean Peninsula, rather than cooperation that is rooted in one side’s political and policy agenda. Only when this happens can the two Koreas build trust, and can South Korea truly be of help in North Korea’s national capacity-building to cope with climate change risks.

Climate change on the Korean Peninsula seems to have had more important implications than anywhere else in the world. For the two Koreas, which share the Korean Peninsula, climate change is both a threat and an opportunity. As long as North and South Korea both respond to climate change and remain firmly committed to guaranteeing the sustainability of the Korean nation and the ecosystem of the Korean Peninsula, they may reduce the threat of climate change and at the same time establish peace on the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, inter-Korean cooperation on climate change, a low politics issue, may help to defuse tensions from North Korea’s nuclear threats and bring actual progress in the trust-building process of the Korean Peninsula.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary
I. Introduction: The Background
II. Climate Change in North Korea and the Consequences
1. Climate Change on the Korean Peninsula
2. Loss and Damage from Climate Change
3. Climate Change and Social Transition in North Korea
III. North Korea’s Climate Change Policy during the Kyoto Protocol Era
1. North Korea’s Institutions for Environment and Climate Change
2. Mitigation Policy: The Economy in No Need of Emissions Cut
3. Adaptation Policy: The Nation in Desperate Need of Land Management
IV. North Korea’s Climate Change Diplomacy and International Cooperation
1. Unusual Pursuit of Diplomacy and International Cooperation
2. Doubts about North Korea’s Sincerity toward International Cooperation on Climate
V. Inter-Korean Climate Change Cooperation
1. South Korea’s Aid-Centered Cooperation with North Korea
2. Seeking Better Inter-Korean Cooperation on Climate Change
VI. Conclusion


The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not reflect those of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

About Experts

Choi Hyeonjung
Choi Hyeonjung

Center for Foreign Policy and National Security

Dr. CHOI Hyeonjung is a Senior Fellow of Center for Foreign Policy and National Security concurrently serves as the Director of the Publication and Communications Department at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. He is also an adjunct professor of sustainable development and cooperation at Underwood International College, Yonsei University. Previously, Dr. Choi was the Deputy Secretary for Green Growth and the Assistant Secretary for National Agenda at the Presidential Office of ROK. Dr. Choi also worked as a policy research fellow in the 17th Presidential Transition Committee. Prior to the public service positions, he was a research scholar at the Institute of Social Science, the University of Tokyo, Japan, and full-time instructor at the Korean Air Force Academy. Dr. Choi’s areas of research interest include national future strategy; climate change and sustainable development; renewable energy and green economy; international development assistance and cooperation; and non-traditional threats and human security. Dr. Choi received his B.A. and M.A. from Yonsei University and his Ph.D. in political economy from Purdue University, and he has been the recipient of the Order of National Service Merit and two Presidential Distinguished Service Awards.