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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 04:22 GMT 05:22 UK
North Korea's environment crisis
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Deforested mountains   Unep
Deforestation is the top priority
The UN and officials in Pyongyang have agreed the first-ever assessment of the state of the North Korean environment.

The report was written by North Korea's national co-ordinating council for the environment, together with the UN's Development and Environment Programmes.

The head of Unep said Pyongyang had shown its readiness to work with the world community to safeguard nature.

The report lists a catalogue of neglect and over-exploitation of resources, and says time is short to put things right.

The report, DPR Korea: State Of The Environment 2003, was produced by officials from 20 government and academic agencies, with training and guidance from the two UN programmes.

Future collaboration

It was compiled as a result of a visit to Pyongyang in 2000 by Unep's executive director, Dr Klaus Toepfer.

He and Dr Ri Jung Sik, secretary-general of the national co-ordinating council, have now signed a framework agreement on joint activities to improve environmental protection.

The report covers five areas: forests, water, air, land and biodiversity. It says the most urgent priority is the degradation of forest resources.

Bulldozers in mud   Unep
Soils are failing and crops dwindling
Forests cover 74% of North Korea, but almost all are on steep slopes. In the last decade the forests have declined in extent and quality.

The report says this is because of timber production, a doubling of firewood consumption, wild fires, insect attacks associated with drought, and conversion of forest to farmland.

On water it says demand is rising "with economic development and the improvement in standards of living", and calls for urgent investment in domestic sewage and industrial water treatment.

It notes that large quantities of untreated wastewater and sewage are discharged into rivers, and says some diseases related to water use "are surging".

Air quality, the report says, "is deteriorating, especially in urban and industrial areas". Energy consumption is expected to double over 30 years, from almost 48m tonnes of oil equivalent in 1990 to 96 million tonnes in 2020.

North Korea's use of coal is projected to increase five times from 2005 to 2020, underlining, the report says, "the urgent need for clean coal combustion and exhaust gas purification technologies, energy efficiency, and renewable energy alternatives."

On land use, the report says self-sufficiency in food production has been a national policy aim in North Korea.

Changed priorities

But it continues: "Major crop yields fell by almost two thirds during the 1990s due to land degradation caused by loss of forest, droughts, floods and tidal waves, acidification due to over-use of chemicals, as well as shortages of fertiliser, farm machinery and oil.

Birds on the fishing grounds   Unep
Fishing off the Korean coast
"Vulnerable soils require an expansion of restorative policies and practices such as flood protection works, tree planting, terracing and use of organic fertilisers.

"Recognising such issues, [the country] adjusted its legal and administrative framework, designating environmental protection as a priority over all productive practices and identifying it as a prerequisite for sustainable development."

North Korea is home to several critically endangered species, among them the Amur leopard, the Asiatic black bear and the Siberian tiger.

Squaring the circle

It has signed up to international environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, though the report notes a continuing "contradiction between protection and development", which it says is being overcome.

In a wider context, the report says: "The conflict between socio-economic progress and a path of truly sustainable development is likely to be further aggravated unless emerging issues can be settled in time."

It says environmental laws and regulations need to be formulated or upgraded, management mechanisms improved, financial investment encouraged, and research focused on priorities.

Dr Toepfer said North Korea "has shown its willingness to engage with the global community to safeguard its environmental resources, and we must respond so it can meet development goals in a sustainable manner."

All images courtesy of UN Environment Programme.

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