Look northward from South Korea's observatories along the demilitarised zone and you see bare, brown mountains. Defectors who flee the North in boats are said to feel relieved at seeing densely forested hills - the first sign they have entered South Korea
By the end of 2008, North Korea had lost nearly one-third of its forests, according to UN estimates. Among the 180 countries surveyed by a UK-based risk consultancy in 2011, it had the third-highest deforestation rate, behind only Nigeria and Indonesia.
In the latest alarm over the rapid deforestation in the dictatorship, data released this week by Global Forest Watch showed that North Korea destroyed a total area of forest about 18 times the size of Manhattan between 2000 and 2013. The North saw 160,515 hectares of forest disappear over that period, while creating just 13,680ha between 2000 and 2012, according to the figures from the online forest monitoring system run by the Washington-based World Resources Institute.
North Korea’s deforestation has become rampant, with poverty-stricken people indiscriminately felling trees for firewood and turning forests into terraced farmland to grow crops.
The severe deforestation is cited as one of the major reasons behind the devastating floods that have hit the North in recent years. It could also lead to problems with the ecosystem on the Korean Peninsula and the environment in Northeast Asia.
No surprise then that calls for efforts to reforest the North have been mounting in the South. There is a growing sense of urgency over the need to take action as perception spreads that further delay in undertaking forestation will raise costs and amplify the damage on the environment. Based on current conditions, it will take about 32 trillion won (Bt940 billion) to plant the 4.9 billion trees needed to reforest the North, according to estimates by the Korea Forest Service, a government agency in Seoul.
In this vein, it was timely that an organisation aiming to speed up the forestation work was launched in Seoul on Wednesday, bringing together experts from the two Koreas and China. The group is expected to lay the groundwork for government-level consultations and wider international cooperation.
The forestation project could enable South and North Korea to reap mutually benefits at a time when political and military confrontation limit full-fledged cooperation. South Korea has been a rare case of successful reforestation over the past decades.
Seoul remains cautious about providing the North with any significant-scale aid. Speaking to reporters after a recent forum on inter-Korean affairs, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae was negative towards a civilian move to send 20,000 tonnes of fertiliser to the North. But more flexibility may be shown in discussing a forestation plan.
The reality is that the re-greening of North Korea’s countryside will ultimately require a comprehensive range of measures, including food and energy assistance, which will be made possible only after Pyongyang gives up its nuclear ambitions.
Satellite images show the North coloured dirt brown in a season when the South is all green with foliage. The two Koreas’ full-blown cooperation and eventual reunification will be visible from space as the peninsula becomes one uniform colour.