Science beyond closed borders – the search for reforestation in North Korea


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Author: Fanni Daniella Szakal, 2021 IIASA Scientific Communications Associate

DespiBecause of political challenges, YSSP 2021 participant Eunbeen Park is exploring ways to restore forests in isolated North Korea.

© Znm |

North Korea is a bit of an enigma, and insight into what’s going on beyond its borders is a difficult task. Based on our limited data, however, its once-sweet forests seem to have disappeared at an alarming rate in recent decades.

Deforestation in North Korea is fueled by economic difficulties, climate change, and a lack of information for efficient forest management. Since forests are recognized as important carbon sinks that are invaluable in working to achieve the climate goals set by the Paris Agreement, finding ways to restore them is imperative. Forests are also important in addressing food insecurity and energy issues, which is especially important given the current economic difficulties in North Korea.

Neighboring South Korea serves as a benchmark for a successful afforestation campaign after restoring most of the forest cover in the last half century. South Korean researchers and NGOs want to support afforestation efforts in North Korea, and the North Korean government appears to prioritize this through a ten-year plan released by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2015. Tensions between the two Koreas, however, often hamper effective cooperation.

“We are regionally close to North Korea, but a direct connection is difficult for political reasons. However, many researchers are interested in studying North Korea, and there are currently many South Korean cooperation projects supported by the Unification Ministry, ”says Eunbeen Park, a participant in the 2021 Summer Program for Young Scientists and a second-year doctoral student in Environmental Planning and landscape architecture at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea.

North Korean village © Znm |

Modeling afforestation scenarios in North Korea

The park specializes in using remote sensing data to monitor the environment and detect changes in land cover. During her stay at IIASA, she will use the Land Modeling System in Agriculture, Forestry and Ecosystem Services (AFE-LMS) developed by IIASA to support reforestation in North Korea.

First, the Park will use 1980s land cover maps to map changes in forest cover. It will then identify areas for potential afforestation taking into account land cover change, forest productivity, climate and various environmental variables, such as soil type. It will also develop different afforestation scenarios based on forest management capabilities and tree species used.

According to Andrey Krasovsky, Park Supervisor at IIASA, when choosing tree species for afforestation we must take into account their economic, environmental and recreational values.

“From a set of about 10 species, we have to choose the ones that would be most appropriate in terms of resilience to climate change and disturbances like fire and beetles,” he says.

Challenges in data collection

A major challenge in Park’s research is to obtain accurate information to build its models. If there is relevant research from North Korea, it is not available to foreign researchers and without the possibility of entering the country for personal field data collection, its research must rely on remote sensing data or data extrapolated from South Korean studies.

Fortunately, in recent years, remote sensing technology has evolved to provide high-resolution satellite data through which we can thoroughly view the land cover of an inaccessible country. The park will compare these maps with the yield tables provided by the Korean University based on data from South Korea. Since the ecologies of the two Koreas are largely similar, these maps are thought to give accurate results.

Is there room for scientific diplomacy?

“Research should have no boundaries,” Krasovskiy notes. “In reality, however, the lack of scientific cooperation between research groups in South and North Korea is a major obstacle to turning this research into politics. Fortunately, some organizations, such as the Hanns Seidel Foundation in South Korea, have managed to bridge the gap and organize joint activities that provide hope for better cooperation. ”

Despite diplomatic obstacles, Park hopes her work will find its way to North Korean policymakers.

“I expect that my research could contribute to policy makers and academics in establishing relevant actions related to forests in North Korea,” she concludes.

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