Guest post by Caspar Henderson
This March, a meeting in Pyongyang brought together distinguished conservation biologists from the United States and China with their counterparts in the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRK) to discuss ideas for restoring the country's degraded ecosystems. “It was an utterly remarkable, unprecedentedly real and substantive seminar,” Norman Neureiter, director of American Academy of Science's Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and leader of the foreign delegation, said to a reporter for the US magazine Science.
According to the few foreign scientists who have had access to the country, North Korea faces imminent ecological catastrophe with soil depletion, river siltation and deforestation among the severest problems. Margaret Palmer, director of the University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, describes a landscape of wasted soil and rivers choked with silt from erosion. “The situation is very, very bleak,” she says.
Bringing North Korea's environment back into equilibrium will be a monumental challenge. And securing help from outside could become more difficult thanks to growing political tensions. In late March, the DPRK announced that it would launch an Earth-observation satellite in mid-April to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. American analysts assert that the launch is a long-range ballistic missile test in defiance of UN sanctions. If the DPRK follows through, nascent attempts to cooperate in science and other areas could be derailed for months, a US State Department official told Science.
Still, some scientists hope that whatever the political difficulties in the near and medium term, North Korea increasingly recognises the need for international help and co-operation to restore its degraded land and water. North Koreans “recognize that they need to do something, and do something fast,” says ecologist Keith Bowers, president of Biohabitats Inc., an ecological restoration company in North America. “They also recognise that their livelihoods and food security depend on a restored and healthy ecosystem.”
Caspar Henderson is a UK-based writer and journalist on environmental affairs
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