Peace Science Digest

Environmental Cooperation as Peacebuilding Between North and South Korea

Photo credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid via flickr

This analysis summaries and reflects on the following research: Song, A. Y., & Hastings, J. V. (2020). Engaging North Korea: Environmental cooperation in peacebuilding. Third World Quarterly, 1-19. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2020.1787826

Talking Points

In the context of conflict dynamics between North Korea and South Korea:

  • “Linking ‘low politics’ (the environment) and ‘high politics’ (security) presents a unique opportunity for… building peace.”
  • The persisting environmental cooperation between the two Koreas in forestry is due to North Korea’s motivation to cooperate on environmental issues and the intermediary role played by South Korean and international non-state actors with ties to the South Korean government.
  • In the conflict between North Korea and South Korea, NGO-led environmental cooperation has allowed for resumed engagement when state-to-state hostilities were still too high for other forms of cooperation.


The ebb and flow in conflict dynamics between North Korea and South Korea has led, at times, to engagement and promising prospects of peace and, at others, to increased tensions and hostilities. In times of engagement, which most notably brought about joint declarations at various inter-Korean summits, cooperative projects expanded. In times of tension, economic and cultural cooperative projects stalled, yet environmental cooperation continued to make some progress. Why does environmental cooperation persist despite high levels of hostilities between the two Koreas? Annie Young Song and Justin V. Hastings address this question, arguing that North Korea has desired environmental cooperation on and aid for forestry issues and that NGOs have been able to fill in during periods of tension between the two governments.  

To examine the persistence of environmental cooperation, the authors analyze factors driving forestry cooperation projects from 2000 to 2018. White papers, policy reports, major newspapers, NGO reports, press releases, and publications from the South Korean government and inter-governmental organizations formed the basis for their analysis. The study is situated in the framework of environmental peacebuilding, with an emphasis on the role of local and non-state actors in international environmental cooperation.

Environmental peacebuilding: “the process through which environmental challenges shared by the (former) parties to a violent conflict are turned into opportunities to build lasting cooperation and peace.”

Dresse, A., Fischhendler, I., Nielsen, J. Ø., and Zikos, D. (2019). Environmental peacebuilding: Towards a theoretical framework.” Cooperation and Conflict, 54(1), 99–119. doi:10.1177/0010836718808331.

As previous research suggests, environmental challenges can be approached from a less politicized, humanitarian angle in politically charged conflicts, thereby creating opportunities for parties to engage on mutually beneficial issues. Once this engagement has begun, “[l]inking ‘low politics’ (the environment) and ‘high politics’ (security) presents a unique opportunity for… building peace.” In other words, governments can uphold their articulated national security priorities, which may include heightening tensions or engaging in other forms of political conflict, while still cultivating cooperative relationships over the environment. In the case of the two Koreas, the conflict does not revolve around environmental disputes, so environmental cooperation in a shared geography can be framed as a win-win situation. In addition, existing scholarship on the involvement of local NGOs suggests that they can play unique roles by being more flexible than state actors in responding to political tensions and by giving the peacebuilding process more authenticity and legitimacy.

The persisting environmental cooperation between the two Koreas in forestry is tied to two main factors. First, North Korea is motivated to cooperate on environmental issues. North Korea has lost 30% of its forest area and has suffered from significant desertification over the last few decades, while South Korea has preserved most of its forest area. In North Korea, people are threatened by severe flooding and landslides, which not only result in direct casualties but also contribute to food insecurity and famine. Food insecurity resulting from environmental problems is “closely connected with political stability in North Korea.” This might explain why, even at times of high international political tensions, North Korea participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, framing their afforestation plans as part of international climate change mitigation/adaptation efforts. This unusual engagement of the otherwise highly isolated country can be explained by North Korea’s desire to gain international assistance and to secure the power of the regime.

Second, non-state actors “were able to function as intermediaries in the inter-Korean forestry cooperation when they had a close relationship with the South Korean government.” Since the 1990s, South Korean-based NGOs, quasi-NGOs like the Green Asia Organization, networks such as the Green One Korea Network, and international NGOs such as the Hanns Seidel Foundation have participated in forestry cooperation projects in North Korea by delivering seedling resources, fertilizers, or pest control products, supporting reforestation, and engaging in public participation. The authors note that their non-governmental status allowed for the persistence of environmental cooperation in times of political hostilities between the two Koreas.

The authors did not make a claim that environmental cooperation always successfully persisted through tensions or that it has brought lasting peace to Korea. However, NGO-led environmental cooperation has allowed for resumed engagement when state-to-state hostilities were still too high for other forms of cooperation. In sum, the authors identify three implications for peacebuilding. First, the environmental issue area “offers a de-politicized venue to engage with North Korea.” Second, “NGOs can act as intermediaries to engage conflict parties even in the face of escalating hostility.” Third, “environmental cooperation can generate benefits for conflict parties, separate from and prior to peace.”

Informing Practice

Efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and reforestation activities seem to be strange bedfellows. The former area is subject to formal international negotiations, where institutions, global leaders, policymakers, diplomats, think-tanks, and others seek a breakthrough on peace and security issues (so-called “high politics”) with little regard for environmental concerns (so-called “low politics”). Yet, both are part of the bigger picture of peacebuilding in a conflict that has been going on for almost 70 years.

Environmental peacebuilding as described in this study offers opportunities to lay the groundwork in one issue area (forestry), so that the conflict parties have a way of looking at successes—even if they are disconnected from what one would traditionally consider “peacebuilding”—to create opportunities in other issue areas (e.g., economy, politics). Cooperating in a win-win context over forestry issues is easier than trying to break through in a zero-sum negotiation on denuclearization. State participation is inevitable in peace talks, military de-escalation negotiations, or nuclear disarmament. Cooperation in the environmental realm is not exclusive to state-to-state negotiation, thus opening space for a more diverse set of actors to influence the conflict context.   

A key takeaway from this article is the depoliticized nature of environmental issues (“low politics”) as a pathway to transforming conflicts. Political leaders don’t always have the space to operate outside of a clear security paradigm (“high politics”), whereas ongoing environmental cooperation—for example with working-level meetings and the support of NGOs—can come in handy to “restart cooperation in the conflict zone.” Considering environmental cooperation in a political conflict—even if the conflict issues are not environmental per se—not only recognizes the urgency of addressing planetary needs but also can create moments of “ripeness” for constructive engagement on other issues that otherwise would not have existed amid destructive conflict dynamics.

Broadly speaking, peacebuilding needs to recognize the global and collective concern about how to safeguard access to scarce and critical resources (e.g., water, forests, energy) and how to deal with climate change. Peacebuilders assessing a conflict context should expand their purview to include environmental issues in order to determine the best forms of engagement and support for constructively transforming conflicts, even if attention to these issues is not, strictly speaking, considered  “peace and security work.”

Continued Reading

 Forss, A. (2019, October 29). Rehabilitating North Korea’s forests: The struggle to balance conservation with livelihoods. New Security Beat. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from

Ide, T. (2020, January 8). Beware the dark side of environmental peacebuilding. Resilience Compass Blog. A New Climate for Peace. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from

 Swain, A., & Oejendal, J. (Eds.). (2020). Routledge handbook of environmental peacebuilding and conflict. New York: Routledge.

Peace Science Digest. (January 23, 2020). What is environmental peacebuilding? Retrieved on August 28, 2020, from


The Environmental Peacebuilding Association:

Key Words: North Korea, South Korea, environmental peacebuilding, environmental cooperation, deforestation, reforestation