“At present, climate change is causing serious impact on human civilization and sustainable development together with socio-economic challenges such as dwindling natural resources, rapid increase of population and inequality” – Ri Su Yong, North Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs, December 7th, 2015
Perhaps there isn’t much space in our own narratives for other stories surrounding North Korean or North Korean policy at the moment than nuclear tests, missile or satellite threats and further moments of tension, distrust and apprehension on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang’s capacity to, even at moment of misdirected or confused pique launch a short range weapon at its neighbours certainly concentrates the mind and the priorities of policy makers the world over. A collapse in notions of security and narratological status quo however is not unique to matters simply inter-Korean.
As readers and analysts the world over have witnessed the collapse of the Sykes-Picot settlement in Syria in recent years, along with through American indecision the notion of uni-polarity. When it comes to environmental matters, last December apparently saw the coalition of interested parties coming to agreement on a new settlement focused on climate change at Paris, COP21 meeting. While the paucity of what was actually agreed has, in the mind of this analyst at least, not been fairly or comprehensively enough critiqued, the agreement reached in Paris was framed positively at least. As this agreement was dramatically undermined by the United States Supreme Court decision on the possibilities for local ratification, it seemed to this author an interesting moment to stop and think about its implications elsewhere, in a terrain more of interest to those interested in North Korean matters.
Pak Pong Ju’s visit to the site of an apparently frozen and wintery Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station, number 3 in February 2016 did not for many illustrate any great international connections or aspirations of North Korea. Pak’s visit perhaps was envisaged as one of a multiplicity of reiterative moments in Pyongyang’s developmental narratives of the early part of the year in which the themes of Kim Jong Un’s New Years Address and the intensive focus on the institutional and ideological frameworks surrounding the Seventh Workers Party Congress are projected and re-projected. The fact that the power station is one of a number in the same geographical area which form part of a Clean Development Mechanism project under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) might not jump immediately to the viewers mind.
Paektusan Youth Hero Power Station, 3’s developmental sibling, Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station, number 2, is just that though. CDM project number 5889 to be exact, part of the post Kyoto institutional and bureaucratic framework that sought at a more ambitious moment to concretise a collective sense that the time was now, to resist or mitigate environmental crisis and global climate change. While analysis from Benjamin Habib and this author has reiterated time and time again that it is an overstatement to ever claim that North Korea saw itself a vanguard nation in the resistance to climate change, it was at least once interested.
Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station, and presumably the other hydro-electric infrastructure of Samjiyon County surely attests to that interest. A quick reading of the documentation hosted on the UNFCCC archive which underpins the official approvals for the project and which is required by the Clean Developmental Mechanism (CDM) process suggests a real commitment to not only the aspirations behind the project, but the bureaucratic and conceptual linguistics of the process. While the certification documents’ assertion that local stakeholders were consulted through a series of questionnaires as to their concerns about the environmental impact of the power station may bring a wry smile to the face of many a North Korea watcher, this is Pyongyang rapidly learning the language and form of international engagement.
While North Korean efforts to gain accreditation for its CDM projects were certainly contested through the forums of the UNFCCC (though not as heavily contested as Iran’s projects, the last of which only gained accreditation in October, 2015), Pyongyang was of course eventually successful. As readers will know the process that began with North Korean ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, finally ended on the 23rd of October 2012. CDM project 6949 or Ryesonggang Hydropower Plant No.3, brought Pyongyang’s final total to six CDM projects, around a third of those accredited to the Dominican Republic.
Credits due under the CDM process in general will bring in a paltry and declining sum as the system and process tasked with the marketisation of credits for Carbon reduction ossifies and atrophies amidst post-Paris disinterest. This system in reality was never likely to bring enormous value to credit holders as might have once been envisaged, but North Korea’s interest never seemed to be entirely about this. Just as Pyongyang’s Nuclear testing and rocket launches (whether for the aims of ballistic testing or space exploration), are never really entirely about practical development, as much as they are about wider themes of legitimacy and functionality, so North Korean engagement with the CDM process and the Kyoto protocol was about Pyongyang being a global citizen.
This author therefore wonders what it does say that, Ryesonggang was the last project in the process of accreditation and that all six finally accredited CDM projects began their bureaucratic process in 2009 under Kim Jong Il. While they were completed in the era of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang’s under the current Kim has in fact offered little in terms of practical engagement with the process, as determined as Ri Su Yong’s words may appear.
Perhaps there is something to be said for institutional focus on the finer details of processes such as the UNFCCC and CDM. While North Korea has been concerned to speak the same institutional language as other nations, even for minimal or elusive gains, Pyongyang may have felt more constrained so far as other more apocalyptic, dramatic or dangerous projections of power were concerned. No doubt it can be proved that just as was articulated by Kim Jong Un as the Byungjin line or parallel approach in 2014, North Korea was engaged in the intricacies of the CDM accreditation at the same time as it was sourcing centrifuges, a twin track of developmental approach. However when even the functioning of the Green Climate Fund can be conceptualised by North Korea as yet another vector for insult and slight, the application of Pyongyang’s bureaucratic and nationalist energies on more positive, if labyrinthine processes would surely be welcomed once more.