South Korea: Will forestry cooperation speed up inter-Korean talks?

President Moon Jae-in made another overture toward North Korea at a U.N. climate summit on Nov. 1, suggesting planting trees together to reduce carbon emissions on the Korean Peninsula and pledging to make good on a 3-year-old promise in an apparent bid to reengage Pyongyang.

“The Republic of Korea will take a leading role in cooperation for reforestation,” Moon said in his keynote speech at the 26th Conference of the Parties or COP26 held in Glasgow, calling tree planting one of the key solutions to climate change.

“We will reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the entire Korean Peninsula through forestry cooperation between South and North Korea.”

The remarks were made when Moon reported South Korea’s tighter emissions goal in front of some 100 world leaders at the annual U.N. gathering. Last month, the government decided to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 2018 levels by 2030, a sharp departure from its previous goal of 26.3%.

Forestry cooperation was one of the key commitments made during an inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang in September 2018. Under the joint declaration, the two Koreas agreed to work together to protect and restore the peninsula’s ecosystem, with combating deforestation being the top priority.

Four months later, the South Korean government set up a separate task force affiliated with the Korea Forest Service to carry out follow-up measures such as joint research on seedlings and disease prevention.

But the reconciliatory mood didn’t last long. Related projects were put on hold after the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi in 2019 collapsed without an agreement on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs or lifting sanctions on the country.

Raising tensions further, Pyongyang blew up an inter-Korean liaison office last year in protest against the joint military drills between Seoul and Washington, cutting off all communications channels with the South unilaterally.

Moon’s renewed suggestion on forestry cooperation came amid the North’s recent mixed signals of rapprochement and back-to-back missile tests.

After months of unresponsiveness, North Korea agreed to reopen the severed inter-Korean hotlines in September and hinted at its intention to return to dialogue if certain conditions were met. (The hotlines were cut again briefly, but were restored in October.)

It remains to be seen how North Korea will respond to the renewed offers of forestry cooperation. The North has been lukewarm on a series of proposals made by Moon, such as humanitarian aid and a COVID-19 partnership.

South Korea and the United States are pinning hopes on less sensitive issues to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, while North Korea has said sanctions relief is a precondition to resume talks.

Tackling deforestation is an urgent issue for North Korea. According to South Korea’s National Institute of Forest Science, more than 70% of the country’s terrain is mountains and forests, and about 30% of that area is believed to be deforested.

During the extreme food crisis in the 1990s, people cut down trees for fuel or to cultivate cropland. After decades of excessive logging, the North suffers from severe damage from flooding every year. Despite regular tree-planting campaigns, deforestation continues, making the floods worse.

South Korea’s Environment Minister Han Jeoung-ae said that possible forestry cooperation between the two Koreas would be a “win-win.”

“Of the 40% reduction goals, 5% is set to be achieved through overseas projects with developing countries. If the North joins the projects and reduces carbon emissions, it would be a win-win for both Koreas.”

In the meantime, two North Korean officials, including Choi Il, the North Korean ambassador to the U.K., were spotted attending the Nov. 1 event. They briefly encountered Moon and South Korean officials, but no direct contact was reportedly made.

North Korea has attended the U.N. summit every year in an apparent move to be seen as a normal country that is interested in fighting climate change and other global challenges.

In 2016, the country also announced its goal of cutting emissions by 8% by 2030 and said it could raise the goal to 40.25% if international support is given to build nuclear power plants, and using renewable energy. In this year’s U.N. report, the North raised the respective figures to 15.63% and 50.34%