When more than a dozen scientists from around the world were invited to North Korea in 2012, the country was well into the environmental tailspin that threatens its long-term welfare. The scientists saw the causes and legacies of North Korean environmental policy—or its absence—firsthand: poor farming techniques, stripped forests, little remaining wildlife, massive soil erosion, widespread hunger, and burning of biomass for heat and cooking fuel. That the scientists had been invited to come and consult with North Korean experts and decisionmakers seemed a hopeful first step.
However, the alarm the North Korean environment must have set off in that group of scientists was matched by their hosts’ troubling reluctance to tackle anything of substance. North Korea denied any suggestion that it had a pollution problem. Trips to the countryside were little more than dressed up tours of model farms. Homages to the great leader dominated presentations. And the foreign scientists were prevented from any substantive one-on-one consultation with their North Korean colleagues. This state of denial and insularity would be one thing if the country were self-sufficient. In fact, North Korea is not sufficient at all. Hunger is widespread: a sign of not just political dysfunction but that environmental-based food production has stalled. A 2012 UN report estimated that two-thirds of North Koreans suffer the effects of malnutrition because of food shortages.2
The EPI occasionally excludes countries from the rankings due to missing or incomplete data. In many instances, these countries are too small or lack the resources to provide thorough data on the indicators the EPI measures. Problems of data availability and reliability are well-documented across numerous sectors in North Korea, including those that are vital to the keeping and reporting of data, like statistics and economics. Because of the spurious, evasive nature of data reporting and monitoring in North Korea, the EPI team decided that it could not provide a credible measurement of environmental performance there.
If the truth of North Korea’s environmental conditions and data were not even made available to scientists invited to the country to help, and if even North Korean scientists seem unwilling to accept the catastrophe they oversee, how can anyone trust national reporting?
Environmental degradation in North Korea has been documented by foreign journalists and visitors for decades. Unfortunately, data adequate to assess the extent of this degradation are not available for the EPI to assess. As such, the world will remain in the dark as to the state of North Korea’s environment.