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Forests account for 30.7% of the Earth's surface and play a key role in coping with climate change and protecting biodiversity and homes for indigenous people, as well as providing food security and protected areas. Through forest protection, we will be able to strengthen natural resource management and increase land productivity.
Protected areas now cover 15 percent of the terrestrial and freshwater environment, biodiversity is still under threat. Deforestation and desertification – caused by human activities and climate change – pose major challenges to sustainable development and have affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
Efforts are being made to manage forests and prevent desertification. Two international agreements are currently in place to promote fair resource use, and financial investments are also provided to support biodiversity.
15.1 By 2020, ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreements
15.2 By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally
15.3 By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world
15.4 By 2030, ensure the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, in order to enhance their capacity to provide benefits that are essential for sustainable development
15.5 Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species
15.6 Promote fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and promote appropriate access to such resources, as internationally agreed
15.7 Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products
15.8 By 2020, introduce measures to prevent the introduction and significantly reduce the impact of invasive alien species on land and water ecosystems and control or eradicate the priority species
15.9 By 2020, integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts
15.a Mobilize and significantly increase financial resources from all sources to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity and ecosystems
15.b Mobilize significant resources from all sources and at all levels to finance sustainable forest management and provide adequate incentives to developing countries to advance such management, including for conservation and reforestation
15.c Enhance global support for efforts to combat poaching and trafficking of protected species, including by increasing the capacity of local communities to pursue sustainable livelihood opportunities
SDG 15 and the North Korean Government
The DPRK reported on its progress and challenges related to SDG 15 at the Multi-stakeholder Forum in Vladivostok in 2019. In its presentation, representatives shared that the government had put “emphasis to ensure conservation of ecosystem of land, freshwater and their service, in particular the conservation, recovery and sustainable use of forest, wetlands, mountains, arid areas in keeping with obligations to the international agreements.”
The DPRK is a contracting party to the 1971 Ramsar Convention which commits the country to the “conversation and wise use” of its wetland resources292 and became a national Partner of the East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) in 2018. Related to this the Rodong Sinmun has reported that various activities to better protect and manage wetlands were carried out including investigating and researching wetland ecosystems and managing wetland reserves.
The government’s pledge to promote the implementation of sustainable forest management is often reported in Rodong Sinmun, with articles about the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Environment and the Ministry of Urban Management’s expansion of tree nurseries, tree seedling production and mass tree planting. In 2015, Kim Jong Un gave a talk to senior officials ahead of Tree-Planting Day, a day “when the great President Kim Il Sung kindled the flames of the movement of planting trees,” in which he stated that the entire party, army and people should “conduct a vigorous forest restoration campaign to cover the mountains of the country with green woods.” In this talk, Kim Jong Un compared the success of the forest restoration campaign with victories in the face of “confrontation with the hostile forces including the US imperialists.”
While the DPRK propagates its efforts for increasing afforestation, it has at the same time criticized the poor management of some of its tree nurseries at its Forest Management Centers in a program aired on Korean Central Television. The program condemned the management of the tree nursery’s poor management stating that “the spraying equipment also does not properly work […] No more than 30% of the trees are alive […] The soil is overgrown with weeds […] One of the trees still has not sprouted.” The broadcast went on to say, “When the workers use their heads creatively and engage in the work enterprisingly, great results are achieved in the expansion of the country’s permanent assets […] If all combatants in the forest restoration work sincerely, the Party’s forest restoration plans will be moved forward.”
Additionally, North Korea is a party to the Convention on Biological Party, has ratified the Cartagena Protocol and acceded to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing and the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress. In its 5th National Report on Biodiversity, the DPRK stated that it has promoted the updating and implementation of its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). When reporting on its biodiversity status, the DPRK stated that “the number of plant species recorded in DPR Korea is 10,012, among which the number of higher plant species is 4,426, approx. 1.6% of the global number. And 1,494 species of vertebrates,8,652 species of invertebrates and 866 species of fishes have been recorded so far. Such a rich biodiversity becomes a priceless asset for developing national economy including agriculture, livestock breeding, fruit farming, forestry, aquaculture, bee-farming, and cultivation of herbs, as well as provides human health, cultural and emotional life.”
Moreover, North Korea has reported that the main threats to biodiversity are the “overuse of natural resources beyond the ecological limitation, [especially the impacts] of soil and water loss by deforestation, habitat loss, the invasive alien species, environmental pollution and climate change.” Additionally that it faces “[c]hallenges in reducing the degradation of natural habitats, halting the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protecting and preventing the extinction of threatened species”
In relation to achieving SDG 15, the DPRK has stated that its plans are to “achieve 2015-2024 forest recovery targets; implement the National Environmental protection Strategy (NEPS); National Forest Construction Strategy (NFCS), Biodiversity Strategy (BS) and Action Plans; strengthen sustainable forest management; and to strengthen research and knowledge dissemination for sustainable protection, management and use of ecosystem, forests and biodiversity.”
SDG 15 and North Korean Escapees
“Child labour is really severe. There are many problems with child labour. Farming mobilization, railways, breaking gravel for railways, planting trees, and things like this. It’s very intensive. Children suffer a lot in Pyongyang and everywhere else, needless to say the countryside. […] From the age of thirteen the students go to help at the farms, for a month. They go there and there are no classes.”
[Interview by NKDB in 2017 (NKDB Unified Human Rights Database)]
“The monthly wage is 1,300 won when you successfully meet the required amount, and for mechanics 3,300 won if their work performance is good. I received 3,000 won. Although I received my salary, it was often delayed for several months. And I had to pay all kinds of fees including support fund for the military, youth alliance fees and health insurance fees. They always took money from me but I never benefited from it. Also in factories, there were a lot of tasks that we were assigned by the authorities. In spring we had to plant trees. There are countless examples like this. When they take away all these fees, there was nothing left. If I was lucky, the only money I was left with was just enough for me to buy a bowl of corn noodles. During the time it cost only 5 won for a bowl. But that was something significant. Usually we weren’t even given that. There were all these guises to take everything away. We would be told to pay 500 won for some fees but not be given a salary of 3,000 won, so then the fee would be subtracted from the next salary.”
[Interview by NKDB in 2015 (NKDB Unified Human Rights Database)]
“As many of my comrades were not able to come to school because of their difficult home lives, their school chores were given to the rest of us. Not being able to meet my friends at school alongside the avalanche of tasks we were given at school took a big toll on me. The work we had to do was endless—from planting trees and picking clovers in the mountains or collecting scrap metals and plastics. It was compulsory for us to contribute 1kg of clovers per week. I used to get cramps in my legs from clover picking all afternoon.”
[Interview by NKDB in 2018 (NKDB Unified Human Rights Database)]
SDG 15 and the International Community
In spite of its reputation as a closed country, North Korea has cooperated with the international community on wetland and waterbird conservation. Through its long work in North Korea, the German Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) has worked for over ten years to identify priority wetlands in the DPRK; increase the awareness at all importance of the wetlands; build the knowledge and skills of decision makers, site managers and relevant persons; support the accession of the DPRK to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands; support the National Action Plan for the DPRK and update the inventory of wetlands in the DPRK. The continuous work of HSF has shown the DPRK’s willingness to work towards the conservation of life on land. Through several workshops, HSF reported that North Korean participants “showed a high interest in the inclusion of the country into international agreements (like the Ramsar Convention) and into international organizations (like IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature).”
HSF has reported on the protection of wetlands in the DPRK and how the protection of migratory bird habitats can connect people. According to HSF, the population of migratory birds is declining as 66% of intertidal wetlands in the Yellow Sea, a resting place for migratory birds, has been lost over the past 50 years.
While the DPRK has propagated its pledge to ensure conservation, restoration and sustainable use of ecosystems, as the country remains isolated environmental information and scientific data remain missing. As a result, it is difficult to know the exact state of the DPRK’s achievements of SDG 15. Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea and Miranda Naturalists’ Trust have however, been able to update the national wetland inventory as international researchers have been allowed to access sensitive coastal areas.
The Rason reserve in North Korea, with its three or four shallow, vegetated lakes surrounded by rolling hills and diverse habitats is well-suited for ecotourism. However, researchers have shown that these areas are being used for economic development, rather than conservation. As Kim Jong Un pushes for economic development, many conservation efforts are overrun with construction projects. Reports have shown that a Chinese company has already bulldozed land at the Rason Migratory Bird reserve, one of North Korea’s two new Ramsar Sites.
Additionally, the high levels of human activity has affected conservation efforts as North Korean fishermen and farmers directly depend on the ecosystems for their livelihoods and survival. NKDB’s research has found that conservation efforts have affected those who do not receive state rations or are unable to participate in market activity.
As North Korea pushes ahead with the increase of afforestation and reforestation, the element of forced labour should not be dismissed. The North Korean curriculum shows that tree-planting is included in high schools in North Korea. In a submission to the Committee of the Rights of the Child, PSCORE stated that children are forced into labour including planting trees. According to the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), North Korean children have to shoulder the costs of planting trees in the wintertime by schools and teachers. According to an internal source, It is not only children, but unpaid workers, women and soldiers who are mobilized to carry out nationwide “greentrification” efforts.