North Korea
North Korean farms are more vulnerable to floods and droughts as a result of deforestation and soil erosion. REUTERS

North Korea is on the verge of an environmental collapse. Its fresh water is polluted and bacteria-infected, its land deforested and the soil eroded. The North Korean people are struggling to find clean water to drink and to grow food to eat.

It's no wonder that every time their authoritarian government agrees to halt its nuclear energy program, it does so in exchange for food aid. This, however, is a strategy with diminishing returns as demonstrated recently, when the U.S. cut off food aid to North Korea, after it announced it would move forward with a satellite launch this month in violation of a prior agreement to not test or use ballistic missile technology. Consequently, the reclusive nation is acutely aware of the dire state of its natural resources is seeking to mitigate it beyond exchanging nuclear ambitions for food.

Last month, North Korea invited 14 scientists from eight different countries -- five alone from the U.S. -- to attend a conference with 75 North Korean scientists, and provide their expertise on restoring the country's environment and securing domestic food supplies. Dr. Margaret Palmer, executive director of Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center at the University of Maryland and one of the scientists who appeared at the conference, recently spoke with the New York Times about her assessment of North Korea's ecological crisis and its government's capability to deal with it.

It's a depressing landscape, especially this time of year, Palmer told the Times. Everything is just mud and everything is being farmed, or attempted to be farmed. But their ability to produce food is being dramatically compromised by a cascade of effects caused by deforestation.

North Korea's environmental crisis started in the 1950s during the Korean War, which resulted in massive forest fires and widespread deforestation. The situation was exacerbated during the 1990s when droughts and floods destroyed crops and caused a major famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Recovering forests were raided by desperate villagers for food and fuel, many surviving by eating grass and tree bark.

Although the major environmental problems were clear to Palmer, she expressed doubts about the North Korean scientists' approach to them.

The presentations were almost exclusively about how to promote agriculture ... It felt like [the North Korean scientists] had a sense of the direction of the scientific community in the rest of the world but that they lacked the technology and understanding to implement any of it, Palmer said.

In contrast, Peter Raven, president emeritus of Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, offered praise for North Korea's efforts to reforest through planting crops alongside trees.

They had a fine understanding of agroforestry principles and were applying them in a very understanding way to reforestation, Raven told Science Magazine.

Norman Neuriter, director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who selected the American experts for the conference, said the gathering was heavily monitored and restricted, and expressed disappointment with the limited communication between the advisory team and North Korean scientists.

One would like to have had more individual interaction, one-on-one or two-on-two, but that wasn't possible, Neureiter told the Atlantic Wire.

We weren't allowed to talk informally with the scientists, Palmer told the Times. We were escorted to separate rooms during coffee breaks and there was no time to casually chat and ask questions.

Despite the restrictive atmosphere of the conference, the scientists are hoping to move forward with environmental restoration projects, though it is not yet clear how political tensions over North Korea's nuclear program will impact future collaboration efforts. It is clear that the government must mobilize quickly if it is to avoid another disaster like it experienced during the 1990s.