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View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
Rising sea levels caused by climate change and exacerbated by annual flooding could overwhelm the North Korean city of Sinuiju — one of the country’s most important trading hubs and home to nearly 300,000 people — by the year 2050, a recent scientific study reported.
The study, published last week by the research organization Climate Central, found that more than a quarter-billion people worldwide, including hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, now live on land that will be inundated by the middle of the century if sea levels continue to rise and governments do not move faster to fight it.
The alarming projections for coastal flooding, calculated with newer data and more sophisticated computing power than earlier scientific studies had used, are far worse than researchers had previously thought — and the DPRK will be no exception, one of the study’s authors told NK News.
“By 2050, land home to 800,000 in North Korea is expected to fall below projected annual average coastal flood levels,” said Dr. Scott Kulp, a senior computational scientist at Climate Central.
“By 2100 that number climbs to 1 million,” he said. “Our assessment finds that today, 680,000 live on land in North Korea threatened by annual coastal flooding.”
All of this, according to the report, could have “profound economic and political consequences within the lifetimes of people alive today.”
North Korea is projected to experience flooding at many different points along its more than 1,500 miles of coastline, on both sides of the peninsula.
But the worst of the damage, according to the report, will be in Sinuiju, a city on the Amnok River — known as the Yalu River in China — that already is prone to severe floods.
Data from Climate Central shows that large swaths of Sinuiju, along with much of Dandong, the Chinese city directly across the river, will be underwater by 2050 — and even more so by 2100.
Nearly a decade ago, in 2010, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on “serious” flood damage in Sinuiju and nearby Uiju County, with thousands of homes “totally or partially destroyed or submerged.”
That flood, state media reported, was due to “unprecedented” amounts of rain.
But as sea levels rise, according to Climate Central, severe floods will hit North Korea with or without the rain.
Instead, the real deluge, creeping closer to the North Korean coast with every passing year, will come from the tide alone, when the rising river overtakes the land for good.
According to Climate Central’s projections, the elevated sea level will engulf miles of land within the city — a permanent high tide that would redraw the DPRK’s coastline and likely uproot thousands upon thousands of people.
And when “annual flooding” — the kind that might be caused by a torrential rainstorm, like in 2010 — is factored into the assessment, the predicted damage is substantially worse.
Climate Central also considered two other variables that may end up determining how high the sea level will rise because of climate change: pollution reductions — whether and to what extent governments may ultimately lower their countries’ emissions — and luck.
Interviews with multiple experts in flood prevention and coastal resiliency reveal broad agreement about a key point: a coastal city like Sinuiju may, in theory, have numerous ways to deal with the coming floods — building sea walls, elevating roads, or even evacuating citizens altogether — but none of it will be easy, and none of it will be cheap.
What’s required, according to Kelly Leo, the Resilient Coasts program director for The Nature Conservancy in Maryland and Washington, DC, is “a fundamental shift in urban planning.”
“Cities will have to make some hard decisions about what infrastructure will need to be protected, what will need to be relocated, and what might be lost,” Leo told NK News.
“A big part of how cities and communities decide what adaptation approaches to adopt will be determining what the most important things to protect are, and then how realistic is it that they can actually be protected in place,” she said.
It is unclear which officials in North Korea would have the final say over those decisions.
Dr. Iris Hui, a senior researcher at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, told NK News that it will be difficult to put an exact dollar figure on the cost of such efforts.
That depends, she said, on how much risk a given place is willing to accept: a lower sea wall, for example, is cheaper than a higher sea wall — but also less effective.
“One way or the other,” Hui said, “it will be very costly.”
Dr. Jayantha Obeysekera, the Director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University in Miami, made a similar point to NK News.
“This is not something people can take care of themselves,” he said. “I think governments need to invest lots of money to protect certain areas — or decide to retreat.”
In a phone interview, Stanford University’s Dr. Hui told NK News about a local creek near campus, in an affluent part of Northern California, that had overflowed and flooded a relatively small area.
She said it caused “enormous” damage and cost millions of dollars to the community.
“So the question is,” she said, “if a small area is quite costly, can we even imagine what it’s like to cover a state like California, or a country like North Korea?”
Without mentioning North Korea by name, Climate Central study author Dr. Kulp told NK News that dealing with flooding on this scale will be a challenge for any country on the planet.
The DPRK, however, may find that challenge even more difficult, because it lacks substantial resources and is isolated from much of the world.
“Defending large populations will undoubtedly require huge investments,” Kulp told NK News. “Some nations may not be able to protect their coastal communities without assistance from the rest of the world.”
According to Mohamed Babiker, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies country office in North Korea, Pyongyang is already at its limit for what it can accomplish on its own.
The DPRK “is regularly affected by a range of natural hazards and disasters precipitated by climate change, and often these disasters exceed the local capacity to cope with,” he told NK News, adding that the aid group already has thousands of volunteers and “national and provincial disaster response teams” on standby for when assistance is eventually needed.
But in the current political climate, even the most eager aid organizations may not easily be able to help.
According to Andray Abrahamian, a Visiting Fellow at George Mason University Korea who has led numerous training and knowledge exchange projects in the DPRK, outside assistance to the North may be hard to come by if their standing in the world doesn’t change.
“As a poorer country, there are resources available to help cope with climate change — projects funded by major development institutions like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank or Green Climate Fund,” Abrahamian told NK News.
“North Korea remains locked out of those mechanisms because of its position in the international community, which is part of the reason I think a deal would be so valuable to them,” he said.
“It would unlock forms of cooperation that I think will be really important when it comes to climate change, but also other 21st century challenges.”
There are signs that North Korea is taking the looming crisis seriously.
In September, at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, a North Korean delegate announced that the DPRK would “actively engage in the international efforts to tackle the climate change and protect environment,” according to KCNA.
North Korea “undertakes dynamic struggle to implement” its climate change plans, the DPRK delegate reportedly said.
NK News at the time was unable to independently verify that a North Korean delegation participated in the summit, and a draft agenda for the global meeting did not list Pyongyang as a participant.
According to KCNA, the country’s climate change plans include reducing carbon dioxide emissions “by 16.4 percent annually by 2030,” along with an additional 36-percent reduction of the country’s greenhouse gases, to be done “with active international cooperation in accordance with the Paris Agreement.”
North Korea has ratified the world’s major climate change agreements in recent decades: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 1994, the Kyoto Protocol in April 2005, and the Paris Agreement in August 2016.
Membership in the Paris Agreement may be a particular point of pride for the North — at least as a way to contrast itself with the United States.
“Global warming is one of the gravest challenges the humankind is facing today,” a spokesman for the DPRK foreign ministry said in 2017, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull out of the agreement.
To leave the deal, the North’s spokesman said, is “a short-sighted and silly decision ignorant of the fact that the protection of the global environment is in their own interests.”
On Monday, the Trump administration informed the UN that it had begun the formal process of leaving the global accord for good.
For now, Washington and Pyongyang are focused on the big questions of war and peace — of nuclear weapons and sanctions.
It is unlikely that climate change was a topic of discussion when the two sides met for rare nuclear negotiations in Stockholm last month.
Eventually, though, the two countries may have no choice but to see eye-to-eye.
By 2050 — if the images of Sinuiju and Dandong, of New Orleans and Shanghai, and countless other cities around the world are to be believed — the nuclear crisis may look small next to what the sea is preparing to bring.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News