No sooner had we taken a look at Kim Jong Un’s Masik Pass speech (“Let Us Usher in a Fresh Heyday on All the Fronts of Socialist Construction by Creating the ‘Speed on Masik Pass’”) than DailyNK ran a devastating piece on recent landslides and flooding at the site. The story is a sad reminder that “natural disasters” are rarely natural, but are frequently exacerbated or even caused by human planning failures.
In the speech, the Young General made explicit reference to the importance of attending to environmental concerns. The relevant passage is worth quoting, because it appeared to reflect lessons learned from the country’s unfortunate history of flooding:
“[The soldier-builders] should strive to preserve the ecological environment in its original state, plant trees of superior species and turfs appropriate to the geographical conditions of the local area, and tend them with care, just the same way as they do things for the sake of their parents and brothers and lay out the yards at their native homes.”
Thanks to reporting by a South Korean NGO, information has now leaked out from both local and government informants that a portion of the construction site collapsed following recent rains. Landslides and local flooding ensued, causing damage to homes and farms at the base of the mountain. The likely culprit: the lack of accountability and pesky details like environmental impact studies. The DailyNK story speculates that project managers dispatched by Pyongyang were under pressure to complete the project—in the words of the speech—“in a sweeping way like a charge of dynamite set off, like lightning, in the spirit of At a Go, so as to create the speed on Masik Pass.” Indeed. The rapid removal of trees from the slopes of the resort and inattention to flood control measures combined to generate a localized government failure.
We should not be smug about this unfortunate turn of events; the US is hardly immune from such errors. The appropriate response is to view the wider flooding as a humanitarian issue requiring assistance; a UN assessment team is now on the ground and we will report on the possible economic effects in a subsequent post as warranted.
But the direct links to environmental mismanagement, the forced-march approach to economic development and the lure of white elephant projects is too direct to ignore. The Korean peninsula has a monsoon-like rain pattern. Trees are cleared for fuel, for sale, to bring more and more marginal land under cultivation, or for misguided projects; this contributes to runoff, river and canal silting, and most importantly, silting of reservoirs. None of these problems is offset by appropriate investment in public goods. What is a typical seasonal rain pattern becomes a near-annual flooding crisis as the environment simply cannot carry the same amount of water.
As with the food aid dilemma, the international community has to ask itself serious questions. Should this recurrent pattern be treated each time as a one-off humanitarian emergency? Or does deeper policy dialogue on environmental policy need to be built into emergency assistance?