North Korea

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North Korea is facing its seventh year of food shortages arising from weather-related problems. A famine killed tens of thousand of people in 1996-97. (Washington Times; December 8, 2000; Thomas Wagner, Associated Press) Thousands crossed the border into China looking for food.

(Washington Post; July 23, 2001;Pg. 16; John Pomfret, Washington Post Foreign Service) A large percentage of the population remains susceptible to malnutrition and their living conditions continue to worsen as energy shortages shut down factories and further reduce the ability of the country to feed itself. Although the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, tensions remain. As a consequence, the regime continues to spend huge sums and devote scare resources to feeding and maintaining a huge and menacing army.

Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict
Information on developments and trends within North Korea's borders is difficult to obtain. It is therefore difficult to determine with certainty to what degree North Korea's current problems are due to incompetent leadership, to the failures of a planned economy, or to environmental changes. That said, it is clear that recent changes in northeastern Asia's weather have played a role in undermining the North Korean regime. "The realization that North Korea was in deep trouble began with an act of nature. On the sticky midsummer day of July 26, 1995, the skies over the country darkened. Rains began to pound the earth, rains that were heavy, steady, and unrelenting and that soon turned into a deluge of biblical proportions. The DPRK Bureau of Hydro-Meteorological Service recorded 23 inches of rain in ten days; in some towns and villages, according to the United Nations, as much as 18 inches of rain fell in a single day, bringing floods that were considered the worst in a century." (The Two Koreas; Pg. 370; Don Oberdorfer). Notably also, commenting on this summer's drought in North Korea, the Washington Times quoted North Korea's foreign news outlet, KCNA, as saying: "From the climatological point of view, this long spell of drought is something rare in the history of meteorological observation. It is believe to happen once in 1,000 years." (The Washington Times; June 6, 2000; Pg. 15)

North Korea had been experiencing economic dislocations and food shortages since it lost its East European and Soviet trading partners in 1991, but the incredible series of punishing blows nature dealt to North Korea in the form of droughts, floods, storms and tidal waves from 1995 through 2001created serious problems for the regime. "North Koreans were consuming oak leaves, grasses, roots, and tree bark and other non-standard food--." (The Two Koreas; Don Oberdorfer; Pg 394) As evidenced by the disbanding of the Korean People's Army Sixth Corps in early fall 1995 (The Two Koreas; Don Oberdorfer; Pg. 375), the food shortages appear to have had an impact even on the military, that institution on which the North Korean leadership depends to remain in power. That these natural disasters were the results of environmental changes in northeastern Asia rather than something the North Korean regime did appears clear from the appearance of similar phenomena throughout the area, from never-before-seen severe snowstorms in Mongolia to droughts in neighboring parts of China.

Except that Homer-Dixon discusses the impact of environmental change in terms of a developed North being threatened by an environmentally degraded South, and the situation between North Korea and South is reversed in these terms, Homer-Dixon's hypothesized three types of conflict are applicable to North Korea in all aspects.

Simple Scarcity Conflicts
River water is one of the three types of resources which Homer-Dixon foresees as a likely cause for simple scarcity conflict, and the conditions for such a conflict exist between North and South Korea: They both share a major tributary of the Han River which cuts through the center of Seoul....
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