Is North Korea Cutting Down All Its Trees?

May 1st, 2015 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

A secretive government can lie about many things, but it can’t hide its landscape from Earth orbiting satellites.

Most people are familiar with the nighttime satellite imagery revealing virtually no lights on in North Korea, presumably due to its extreme poverty. It’s always Earth Hour there.

But MODIS satellite imagery from yesterday shows that North Korea is cutting down its trees at an alarming rate, while South Korea shows about the same level of greenness compared to two years ago:


In contrast to PBS’s article on North Korea’s environmental collapse, which makes it sound like a case of simple neglectfulness or poor land management, North Koreans are just trying to stay alive. The poorest countries of the world have the worst environmental records as the land is denuded for firewood.

To get some sense of the North Korean mindset, read this candid, sad, yet humorous Tim Urban article, 20 Things I Learned While I Was In North Korea.

Now you’ll have to excuse me while I go change all of my computer passwords since one thing the North Koreans are good at is hacking the computers of people they don’t like.

34 Responses to “Is North Korea Cutting Down All Its Trees?”

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  1. Thanks for the photos, Dr. Spencer.
    It is impressive what human energy poverty can do for the environment!
    North Korea is a nuclear-armed country, lets hope they can keep the insanity within limits.

  2. Johan says:

    Well yeah, it’s an American satellite. Go figure …

    (I don’t need to put a /sarc tag in here, do I ?)

  3. David L. Hagen says:

    No. Korea’s strongly industrialized agriculture has collapsed – leading to subsistance farming & wood for fuel to survive AND “. . .in the mid-1970s they launched a campaign to terrace 200,000 hectares of hillside fields with a gradient of 16 degrees or higher and these programs included the irrigation of upland dry fields.” With the collapse of the USSR, N. Korea lost its subsidized fuel and tractor parts, and diesel to transport coal to fertilizer factories. “North Korea traditionally manufactured 80-90 percent of its own fertilizers, but since 1995, domestic production has been less than 100,000 tons per year, from 600,000 to 800,000 tons a year before 1990. Thus, agriculture currently operates at 20 to 30 percent of normal levels of soil nutrient inputs. This shortfall is said to be the largest single contributor to reduced crop yields and to food shortage” Insufficient exports for hard cash to purchase diesel fuel. “In 1990 North Korean diesel consumption stood at 120,000 tons, and it now stands at 25,000 to 35,000 tons per year, leading to 70 to 80 percent reduction in the use of tractors and other farm machinery” Consequence? Famine & economic collapse. See Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and its lessons 2002 ADB Paper 31

    • Johan says:

      Oh, they could use some help from BIG OIL then ?

      • David L. Hagen says:

        The greatest help would be to merge with South Korea by whatever means. The rule of law with distributed decision making would restore the opportunity for rational economic and environmental stewardship including purchasing and efficient use of fuel.

        • rah says:

          That might happen if N. Korea were about it’s people. But it’s not. This picture sums up who N. Korea is about pretty well: Generals of the N. Korean Army in full regalia showing all their medals. The same goes for the civil side but I only call it the “civil side” because they don’t wear military uniforms.

          Yes that stink hole is collapsing. Only the best military units man the DMZ and maintain “security” while the other 3/4 of the N. Korean military spends a great deal of their time tending “gardens” (really farms)in order to try and feed themselves.


        • rah says:

          Sorry I unintentionally grabbed a photo shopped version of the Generals. Here is the correct one, which is almost as bad:

        • gbaikie says:

          There is no help for North Korea. And it’s perfect exhibition of a totalitarian government.
          And it’s large mistake to think North Korea is “unnatural”. Rather North Korea is a large zoo of humans being animals.

          Helping North Korea would be like expecting chimpanzee to be a human. Which one could do with a handful chimps, but no one should not want do this with millions of them.

          So best value to keep North Korea the way North Korea wants to be- as a living exposition and exhibit A of what is not a civilization.
          And it’s good thing it’s next door to China- the Chinese should live in fear, that their nation could eventually become more like North Korea {as all people should fear, but it’s particularly relevant for the Chinese as they standing nearest this brink}.

          And US has Cuba and Haiti nearby, though these regions are not as far gone, yet, as is North Korea.
          It makes more sense for US to merge with Haiti than for South Korea to merge with North Korea- Haiti is more civilized and US *could* have the will and the capability to help Haiti not become North Korea.

        • James Strom says:

          Weighing on people’s minds is the experience of the reunification of Germany, in which the poorer eastern section has weighed down the German economy significantly. It’s a soluble problem, but it is a cautionary tale to S. Korea.

          • rah says:

            Yes the reunification of East and West Germany did take a heavy toll on the West German economy and thus many of those in West Germany saw their standard of living decline. But it was most certainly a price the majority of West Germans were more than willing to pay and it would be the same for N. and S. Korea if by some miracle that ever occurred in the way it did for the Germans.

    • David L. Hagen says:

      “North Korea’s imports from developed countries dropped drastically from 38.5% to 7.3%” from 1990-2005.

  4. sergeiMK says:

    But according to the Cornwall Alliance:
    “We believe Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.”

    So what is the problem with cutting trees? It is self regulating and resilient.

  5. David L. Hagen says:


    The earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants,
    as the result of their deeds.

    Micah 7:13
    No problem if done sustainably as in US commercial forests.
    Under economic collapse/famine conditions, No. Korea is being denuded for survival – where the “regulation” will come from greater famine, which is not “resilient”.

    • G. Karst says:

      Starving people will eat their seed grain and thus continue with famine – long after the famine causation ceases. Freezing people will burn any source of fuel to stay alive.

      We pay a heavy price allowing Starvation to exist. Starvation is the easiest disease to cure in a warm world.

  6. Konrad says:

    There are many deciduous tree species in temperate forests. Their leaves fall off in autumn. What are the dates of the images?

    • dave says:

      Konrad says:

      “What are the dates of the images?”

      It says it on the can – “yesterday”.

    • James Strom says:

      Is there some reason to believe that time flows at a different rate north of the 38th parallel?

      • dave says:

        “…time flows at a different rate…?”


      • Don K says:

        Is there some reason to believe that time flows at a different rate north of the 38th parallel?

        Rate? No. Reference framework however … Wikipedia tells me that Korea has a humid subtropical climate similar to New Englandmor New York. Six weeks ago a satellite photo of Vermont would have been white. Two weeks ago brown. Today, still pretty brown especially the forested areas where the tree leaves are just starting to bud and this year’s undergrowth is just starting to poke up through last Autumn’s leaves. That’ll change rapidly and in eight weeks, the woods will look like Guadalcanal. The rapid greening moves poleward rapidly in April and May.

        So, two issues. First, early May may not be the best time to check North Korea’s foliage. Second, the equivalency brown=deforested, green=forested may not be valid at this time of the year in places like North Korea and New England..

        • An Inquirer says:

          Don K,
          Would you expect Sough Korea’s foliage to follow a different time cycle than North Korea’s foliage?

          • Konrad says:

            Yes, latitude and elevation have an effect on time of leaf out/leaf drop.

            The bigger question: Were the two images taken during similar times of the year?

  7. lemiere jacques says:

    they are not cutting treees treed died because of global warming…

  8. dave says:

    A “green” economy is so brown.

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    A glimpse of the future when the Greens take over.

  11. michael hart says:

    What is the fraction of deciduous trees? Presumably spring comes slightly later in North Korea.

  12. Skeptikal says:

    That looks more like a drought to me.

  13. dave says:

    According to the World Bank, the percentage of North Korean land which is forested has fallen as follows:

    1990 68.1%
    2000 57.6
    2010 47.1

    In contrast, South Korea’s forests have been stable during this period.

  14. dlb says:

    The recent image seems to have a yellow cast through it. Even the ocean is a different colour. Nth Korea has more grass and cropping land which has been accentuated by the yellow cast. Also agree that in the mountainous regions of the north spring has not yet arrived so the deciduous forests would still be bare. Highly doubt it is deforestation in two years, just being skeptical as usual.

  15. crakar24 says:

    Perhaps if we lifted all those crippling sanctions we have in place things might get a bit better for them?

  16. Greg says:

    No oil so they need the trees

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