|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks to his aides during his visit last week to a farm in Samjiyon County, where a township is being built. He stressed that the project should not lead to forests being destroyed. / Korean Central News Agency
By Yi Whan-woo
Speculation is growing that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is making a priority of forestation in rebuilding the economy, after he visited Samjiyon County in the border region.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on July 10 that Kim visited the county in Ryanggang Province, where a town is being built.
He said the project should be divided into the areas of education, dwelling houses, modern streets, industry, sports and cultural education, commercial service and tourism.
He also stressed that the project should not lead to the destruction of forests in the region and cited the need for "a good design of forestation and tree planting."
His instruction appears to be in line with inter-Korean cooperation on forestry.
This is the not the first time that Kim has emphasized environmental protection.
In February 2015, Kim said the country should be turned into "thick woodland and greenery," noting that "bare mountains and earth-covered ones should never be handed to posterity."
During the Paris climate talks in December 2015, then-North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong said Kim has launched a war on deforestation, pledging to participate in global environment efforts.
Ri said North Korea has the aim of reducing the country's total amount of greenhouse gas emissions by 37.4 percent compared with the levels in the 1990s.
North Korean carbon emissions plummeted in the 1990s as its economy collapsed, but have slowly crept back up in recent years.
In March 2017, Kim Il Sung University set up a college of forest science.
The North began to build an institute in Pyongyang to study forests in April while boasting in June that it had completed a large-scale sapling nursery in Kangwon Province in the east.
However, the country's deforestation has worsened because of excessive use of forest resources in the face of economic difficulties and energy shortages, according to a recent report released by Green Korea, an environmental civic group.
The report contained photos on North Korean mountains and forests in nine areas near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Bare mountains can be seen north of the DMZ and a few trees on mountains near the now-shuttered Gaeseong Industrial Complex.
"Deforestation-led natural disasters occur every year, leaving hundreds of people dead," Green Korea said. "Restoring forests is more urgent than developing a factory zone or connecting roads and railways."
On July 4, the two Koreas held working-level talks to address deforestation-related problems in the North.
The meeting is the latest in a flurry of contacts between the two Koreas following two summits between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Kim in April and May.
South Korean forestry projects with North Korea involving non-governmental organizations date back to 2000. This was when the first inter-Korean summit took place and set the stage for an increase in civilian exchanges.
But until 2003, forestry cooperation was mainly limited to the supply of materials or holding one-off events.
The second inter-Korean summit in 2007 helped civic groups study more long-term projects for reforestation, but such rapprochement was short-lived as inter-Korean exchanges nearly ended under the South's conservative governments from 2008 to 2017.