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International Journal of Korean History > Volume 28(2); 2023 > Article
냉전 발전주의에 갇힌 환경: 1970년대 북한의 공해담론


이 논문은 1970년대 공해를 중심으로 한 북한의 환경 담론이 냉전과 발전주의와의 관계 속에서 어떻게 전개되었는지를 고찰한다. 1970년대 초반 박정희정권이 중화학 공업 발전이라는 미명 하에 받아들였던 한국의 일본 공해기업 수입은 북한에서 공해라는 용어의 도입과 관련 담론의 확산을 직접적으로 촉발했다. 당시 환경문제에 대한 점증하는 지구적 의식과 논의들도 이 과정에 간접적으로 영향을 미쳤다. 북한에서는 공해를 자본주의국가의 문제점으로 규정하며 한국의 일본 공해기업 수입을 강도높게 비판했다.
그러나 1970년대 자본주의사회의 공해를 비판하는 담론의 확산은 역으로 북한사회 안에서도 점차 심각해지고 있던 공해를 인식하게 만들었다. 이는 1980년대로 접어들며 자국의 환경문제에 대응하려는 제도적 노력으로 이어졌다. 1986년 환경보호법 제정과 1992년 헌법의 환경권 포함이 그 예이다. 비록 기술적 진보가 환경문제를 해결할 수 있다는 발전주의적 시각은 지속되었지만, 이 논문은 1970년대를 북한의 환경 담론이 공해 중심의 좁은 이해에서 환경에 대한 보다 포괄적인 이해로 나아가게 한 과도적 전 단계로 보았다.


This paper examines the unfolding of North Korean discourse on “konghae (pollution)” in the context of the Cold War and developmentalism during the 1970s. Scrutinizing how the North Korean regime justified its own environmental management approach by critiquing the handling of the konghae issue in capitalist states, this study elucidates the impact of North Korea’s Cold War framing on the intertwined dynamics of development and the environment. In particular, the import of Japanese polluting industries into South Korea triggered the introduction of the term konghae into the North Korean vernacular and the subsequent proliferation of related discourse, which may have also been influenced by the growing global consciousness of environmental matters and the corresponding dialogue on potential solutions.
While Cold War framing impeded North Korean acknowledgment of its own developing pollution problem, discourse on pollution expanded as it became harder to ignore the growing phenomenon of pollution within the country and awareness of pollution became more common. This led to efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to respond to environmental concerns in North Korea, such as the enactment of the Environmental Protection Law in 1986 and the incorporation of environmental rights into the Constitution in 1992. This paper highlights the significance of the 1970s as a pivotal pre-transition phase during which North Korea’s environmental discourse evolved from a confined focus on konghae to a broader, more comprehensive conception of the environment. Despite this progression, the developmentalist idea that technological advancement can resolve environmental challenges persists in the DPRK.


In North Korea, pollution, or konghae (公害), refers to “damage caused to people’s health and living environment by industrial construction, urban construction, and other social factors.”1 The term konghae, which originated in Japan, came into popular use in North Korean society in the 1970s, coinciding with South Korea’s pollution industry imports from Japan. Severe pollution in Japan in the 1960s led to the explosive growth of the anti-pollution movement.2 When polluting Japanese industries tried to find alternate sites in the early 1970s, the Park Chung Hee administration actively courted them in the interest of promoting South Korea’s heavy and chemical industries. In the 1970s, the discourse on konghae spread, and many people became aware of environmental problems both in South Korea and North Korea.
In fact, in the 1970s, North Korea also began to experience environmental pollution problems caused by rapid industrialization. It received little attention from the state-run media until the mid-1980s when environmental problems in North Korea began to be discussed seriously and environmental legislation was created. Until then, discourse on the environment in North Korea revolved around konghae. Although the environment is a much larger concept than pollution, in both Koreas, environmental discourse developed from the perception of and discussion on konghae; it is therefore a fitting starting point for analysis of the formation of and change in the North Korean environmental perspectives.
This paper examines how North Korea’s discourse on konghae unfolded in relation to the Cold War and developmentalism during the 1970s. Analyzing the way in which the North Korean regime sought to vindicate its own management of environmental issues by criticizing the handling of the konghae issue in the capitalist states, particularly South Korea and Japan, this paper will also show that the interlocking politics of economic development and the environment were shaped by the Cold War outlook of North Korea as a developing state. To this end, I use the term “Cold War developmentalism” here to encapsulate the entangled influences of Cold War international relations and economic developmentalism, which form the context for a discussion of the Korean peninsula during this timeframe.
To date, there have been two main types of research on environmental issues in North Korea. The first type is studies analyzing the state of the North Korean environment and/or the environmental policy or law of North Korea. These studies deal with how North Korea has responded to changes in its domestic environment and the international community’s environmental discussions by making or amending environment- related policies and laws.3 Most of these studies focus on the period after the 1980s because North Korea’s Environmental Protection Law was enacted in 1986, and awareness of the need to address environmental problems spread widely in North Korea around this time. The 1970s saw only limited North Korean recognition of environmental problems and tangential attempts to address them, including “five policies for nature-remaking” and the inclusion of environmental provisions in land law.
The second main type of research on North Korean environmental issues is analysis of environmental cooperation between North and South Korea, along with current status analysis on forests, soils, water quality, atmospheric environment, and so forth.4 These studies have been produced mainly by national research institutes, such as the Korea Environment Institute (KEI), the National Institute of Forest Science, and the Korea Institute for National Unification.5 In particular, KEI publishes a periodical providing information on environmental trends in North Korea.
There has been little research regarding North Korea’s environmental discourse or perspective, though two studies partially address this topic. The first is Kiung Son’s 2006 paper titled “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒnggwan gwa hwangyǒngjǒngch’aek [North Korea’s environmental views and environmental policy],” in which Son explains how North Korea’s fundamental perspective on the environment is informed by the Juche idea.6 The bulk of his research, however, focuses more on North Korean environmental policy and participation in international environmental conferences and agreements; there is little discussion on the raising of awareness on environmental issues or the development of environmental discourse in North Korea. Sŭngju Ch’a’s 2015 paper titled “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒngdamnon [North Korea’s environmental discourse]” also touches on the North Korean perspective, providing an overview of the above studies on North Korea’s environmental law, perception of the environment, and inter-Korean environmental cooperation.7
This paper aims to address this gap in the literature, focusing on the North Korean perspective and discourse on the environment. This requires a historical analysis of the inception of North Korean environmental discourse in the 1970s, which set the stage for the heightened public environmental awareness and enactment of the comprehensive environmental protection law of the 1980s. Despite the fact that konghae was a major axis in spreading awareness of environmental issues in North Korean society, there has been little study of the discourse on konghae in North Korea in the context of the spread of awareness and discourse on environmental issues in Asia more broadly.
The most significant sources for this study are the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s daily newspaper and organ of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, along with a few other North Korean primary sources. These provide optimal material to probe North Korea’s official discourse on konghae as an early form of environmental discourse as well as the structure of discourse over time.
The first section of the paper explains the notion of Cold War developmentalism and the idea of the environment as a sociotechnical imaginary. Next, through an analysis of all Rodong Sinmun articles mentioning konghae published from 1970 to 1979,8 this paper will show the progression of environmental discourse in North Korea during this period. The last section concludes with a sketch of how developmentalism and the idea that technology can solve environmental problems are intertwined in North Korean society.

Environment as a Sociotechnical Imaginary

The term environment encompasses the concepts of the natural environment and the social environment. North Korea’s perspective on environmental issues is shaped by its political identity; modern state socialism promotes ideology as the font of social, and even human, transformation. Moreover, the dominant modern perspective of human-centered nature that extols technological progress and industrialization aligns easily with North Korea’s Juche ideology promoted as a “human-centered idea.” Through this lens, the natural environment has long been regarded in North Korea as an object to be transformed by humans and society.
A striking example is the nature-remaking work, or chayǒn gaejo saǒp (自然改造事業), implemented by North Korea to increase agricultural production. These efforts included irrigation, river improvement, tideland reclamation, floodgate construction, and soil conservation and flood control work.9 Although grand national projects with the title of chayǒn gaejo began in the mid-1970s, North Korea now claims the 1946 Pot’ong River improvement work10 as the beginning of the nature-remaking projects.
North Korea has historically viewed environmental issues fundamentally as “socio-political problems that depend on the nature of social institutions.”11 This rhetoric describes the environment in socialist states as paradise on Earth and environmental problems as inevitable phenomena that occur only in capitalist states. In North Korean logic, true environmental protection and pollution prevention are impossible in capitalist societies because a small number of capitalists who own the means of production are only pursuing profits and are not willing to invest in environmental protection facilities such as pollution prevention. In contrast, North Korea believes that socialist societies can achieve proper environmental protection and pollution prevention because the working people are the masters of state sovereignty and the means of production.12 As such, for North Korea, the environment has been framed in terms of the utopia-dystopia dichotomy.13
Environmental issues are bound with North Korea’s general conception of science, which categorizes science as good or bad according to the social system from which it is generated. North Korea has taken this stance on its nuclear program as well; interestingly, North Korea has occasionally likened konghae to nuclear weapons, stating that “in capitalist countries, konghae has already emerged as an enemy of humanity comparable to nuclear weapons.”14 The socially constructed nature of the environment can also be seen in North Korea’s omitting nuclear-related content from the 1986 Environmental Protection Law.15
As time went by, environmental problems caused by rapid industrialization in North Korea became serious enough that the official North Korean view of and discourse on the environment shifted. Although North Korea’s dominant discourse and ideology define what the environment is, the environment also can play a role in supporting or weakening the legitimacy of the social system. That is to say, the environment itself influences the construction of environmental discourse. In this sense, I consider the environment as a “sociotechnical imaginary” co-constituted by the environment, technology, and society, which is also “temporally situated and culturally particular.”16 The concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries” is borrowed from Sheila Jasanoff and Sang Hyun Kim’s discussion on this term. In their words, sociotechnical imaginaries are “collectively held and performed visions of desirable futures (or of resistance against the undesirable),” and are “animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.”17
Although this paper does not address the environment’s role in the construction of the normative imagination, nonetheless, the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries is helpful here because the changes in the North Korean discourse on the environment show the ways in which the collectively imagined social forms of the environment were built on the realities of both discourse and nature. I intend to explore this idea in greater detail in future research. In this paper, I focus on examining the way in which konghae discourse was interwoven with North Korea’s 1970s environmental perspective.
The Cold War and developmentalism have been the core elements of the sociotechnical imaginary of the environment in North Korea. People’s perceptions of the environment were embedded in these frames. The phrase “Cold War developmentalism” that I employ here best encapsulates the context of North Korean environmental discourse. The konghae problem, which awakened awareness of environmental issues and fostered the spread of environmental discourse during the 1970s in the North, was also addressed within this framework. In the next section, I will analyze this in detail.

Pollution Discourse Trapped in a Cold War Frame

Throughout the 1970s, the discourse surrounding konghae in North Korea consisted solely of critical commentaries on serious pollution problems in capitalist countries and propaganda denying the existence of konghae in the DPRK. Every Rodong Sinmun article on konghae in the 1970s can be categorized this way. The introduction of konghae discourse in the Rodong Sinmun in the 1970s was likely triggered by both Asian economic developments in the context of Cold War competition as well as the introduction of international discussion on the environment.
Articles mentioning konghae first appeared in the Rodong Sinmun in 1972. From this, we can see that as in the 1960s, North Korea’s awareness of environmental problems in the very early 1970s was still minimal. In 1972, a total of eight articles mentioning konghae were published in the Rodong Sinmun. The first among them was an editorial criticizing Japanese monopolistic capital for replacing outdated facilities in Japan by relocating polluting industries to South Korea.18 The report was based on fact; such agreements were taking shape in 1972 following the second meeting of the Korea-Japan Economic Cooperation Committee in 1970, where the relocation of Japanese polluting industries to Korea began to be considered.19 On the Japanese side, this push was due to the growth of the Japanese anti-pollution movement, which had been active in the 1960s but became even more intense with the start of the new decade – the year 1970 was called “the first year of pollution”20 in Japan.
The year 1972 also marked the beginning of international discussions on the environment and ecology. The Limits to Growth was published by the Club of Rome in March of 1972,21 and the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which raised awareness of the global environmental crisis and established June 5th as World Environment Day, was held in Stockholm in June of that year. Although the Rodong Sinmun did not report on these international events at the time, North Korea was likely aware of this international movement because the DPRK joined the World Health Organization (WHO) the following year.22
Among the 1972 Rodong Sinmun articles dealing with konghae, there were a speech and a report by Koreans in Japan who visited the North and South and contrasted Japan and South Korea’s pollution with the clean environment of Pyongyang.23 There was also an article explaining in great detail the serious pollution problems in capitalist states, in particular, the United States and Japan; this article described pollution problems in the city of Gary, which hosted the largest U.S. steel mill complex, and various konghae diseases such as the Minamata disease and Itai-itai disease in Japan.24
When it comes to the propaganda of pollution-free Chosǒn, North Korea always cites Kim Il Sung’s speech at the first meeting of the 5th Supreme People’s Assembly in December 1972, which was published in full on December 26, 1972, in the Rodong Sinmun. In this speech, Kim Il Sung said: “The rational arrangement of industry prevented the excessive concentration of factories and population in a few cities and prevented the pollution phenomenon that has become a major social problem in capitalist countries today.”25 “No pollution thanks to the rational arrangement of industry” is the main logic of North Korean propaganda that extols the superiority of the socialist system and highlights the wise leadership of Kim Il Sung who cares for the people.
The Kim Il Sung chǒjakchip (collected writings) records Kim Il Sung’s first mention of “konghae” in a 1970 speech. According to this source, he used this term for the first time in a meeting of officials from the Tǒkch’ǒn-county Party, government agencies, labor organizations, and administrative and economic organizations, saying that there is no konghae in Tǒkchǒn-county, a machine industrial zone with automobile factories, etc.26 Considering the fact that the volume which includes the above speech was published in 1983, it is very likely that North Korea later added the word konghae into this speech.
The fifth volume of the Kim Il Sung chǒjaksǒnjhip, published in 1972 and containing Kim Il Sung’s major speeches from February 1968 to November 1970, does not include this piece. The speech is also not found in the 1971 edition of Chosǒnjung’angnyǒngam or the Yearbook of the DPRK, which contains reports and speeches by Kim Il Sung in 1970. This could be because chǒjaksǒnjip is selected works and the yearbook is primarily a collection of speeches given at national-level events. However, it is highly unlikely that Kim Il Sung would have used the word konghae in 1970, given that the word did not appear in the dictionary published in 1973.
The number of articles mentioning konghae in the Rodong Sinmun exploded from eight to eighty-six in 1973 when the Park Chung Hee regime took measures to court Japan’s polluting industries. In January 1973, Park Chung Hee announced a policy to promote the heavy chemical industry and encouraged the “export” of Japanese polluting companies and declining industries to Korea. North Korea strongly condemned this policy, calling it an “act of selling out the country.”27
South Korean authorities have been importing foreign monopoly capital and equipment regardless of whether it is harmful to South Korea or not, new or old. They are even bringing in equipment that has already been criticized and ostracized in other countries for polluting the environment.28
In the name of building heavy industry, they are attempting to introduce polluting industries that are being rejected in all areas of Japan by providing all favorable conditions, and they are trying to turn South Korea into a neo-colony completely subject to the Japanese economic sphere.29
In addition, the Rodong Sinmun poured out very detailed reports on already serious pollution problems in capitalist countries, particularly Japan, South Korea, the United States, and West Germany. To give an example:
Even according to the very minimal announcement by the Japanese authorities, over the past year and a half, the number of patients with konghae diseases such as Minamata disease, Itai-itai disease, and Yokkaichi asthma disease has increased by two and a half times and the number of deaths by more than six times. In particular, it is said that in Minamata City of Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, the origin of Minamata disease, one out of every two residents has this disease.30
Konghae-related articles consistently appeared in the mid-to-late 1970s Rodong Sinmun, peaking at 117 in 1978. The number of articles on konghae in Japan and South Korea was roughly equal until 1973, but after 1974, more articles covered South Korea. This can be attributed to the increasing number of Japanese polluting companies entering South Korea in the form of so-called joint ventures (e.g. Toyama Chemical, Nippon Chemical Industries, Showa Electric Industries, etc.),31 as well as the severe environmental pollution in Ulsan and Masan, where large-scale heavy chemical industrial complexes had been built.
For instance, the Rodong Sinmun reported that in August 1975 malformed fish contaminated with light metals appeared off the coast of Ulsan, and malformed fish contaminated with heavy metals appeared off the coast of Inch’ŏn.32 There were also reports of egrets and herons dying in large numbers after eating these contaminated fish in South Kyŏngsang Province.33 Moreover, there were many reports of farmers who had their crops ruined by pollutant emissions and of fishermen with severely damaged fish farms. In one article titled “South Korea is turning into a sewage dump for Japan” on March 14, 1978, the Rodong Sinmun reported, “It has been revealed that South Korea has been massively ‘importing’ waste oil, a polluting industrial waste, and dumping it on the land and sea.”34 Japanese polluting companies entered Southeast Asia just as they had entered Korea; in 1979, North Korea reported revelations from an international conference that Japanese companies dumped toxic wastewater into rivers and seas in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.35
There were also numerous reports of damage caused by polluting facilities near schools and residential areas in the South. Articles described more than 700 students from schools in Ulsan as suffering from lung and skin diseases due to toxic gases emitted by Yongnam Chemical and petrochemical manufacturing plant,36 and more than 50% of workers in Ulsan as suffering from skin diseases, respiratory diseases, vision disorders, and occupational diseases caused by heavy metal poisoning,37 among others. In the late 1970s, articles reporting on konghae in South Korea focused on Ulsan and Masan, and a steady stream of articles covered rallies demanding measures to prevent konghae in cities across the South, including Inch’on, Seoul, Sǒngnam, P’aju, Suwǒn, Anyang, Mokp’o, Sinan, Chǒngsǒn, and Poryǒng.
Along with the depiction of capitalist countries as inextricably linked to pollution,38 as noted above, North Korea was described as “pollution-free” throughout the 1970s, and there was no mention of pollution problems in the Soviet Union, East Germany, or other socialist countries.
Ours is a country of factories. ··· forests of factories ··· yet people living in this country have only heard of konghae in newspapers and magazines, in the news columns of some distant country, but they have no concept of it in their daily lives. What a contrast to the reality of capitalist countries, which are screaming that konghae has emerged as an enemy of humankind comparable to nuclear weapons!39
The graph above shows the number of articles mentioning konghae in Rodong Sinmun in the 1970s by year. Based on this analysis, the export of Japanese polluting companies to South Korea with the active support of the Park Chung Hee regime was a direct factor in the introduction of the term “konghae” and the formation and spread of konghae discourse in North Korea. This is evidenced by the fact that prior to this, there was no mention of konghae in the North. The 1970 Korea-English Dictionary does not contain the words “konghae” or “oyǒm”(pollution). It was not until Chosǒn munhwaǒ sajǒn or the Korean Culture Language Dictionary, published in 1973, that the term was introduced as follows: “The social harm caused by anti-people capitalist industrial construction, city building, and urban management.”40
The 1970 dictionary gives only the following explanations for the word “environment”: “Home (living) environment, new (difficult) environment, and international environment of our revolution.”42 It shows that the meaning of nature was not attached to the word environment. At this time, nature was used only by itself, and “natural environment” was not used as a set phrase. In the Rodong Sinmun, a meaningful article including the word natural environment first appeared in an editorial entitled “Sahoejuŭi haesǒ ŭi saengsannyǒk paech’i e kwanhan t’agwǒlhan kwahakchǒk riron” [Outstanding scientific theory on the arrangement of productivity under socialism] published on April 29, 1973.43 This editorial was written by the Research Laboratory of Industrial Economy under the Institute of Social Science; it articulated the view that industrial construction should be accomplished while protecting the natural environment and natural resources. The article criticized capitalism’s tendency to concentrate various industrial sectors that are harmful to people’s health and the natural environment in cities, noting the serious social, cultural, and health consequences of this practice.
In addition, it wasn’t until the 1973 dictionary that environment was defined in the same way as it is today, as “surrounding natural and social conditions or circumstances that directly or indirectly affect people or animals.”44 This demonstrates that the introduction of the concept of konghae, the spread of related discourse, and the expanded definition of the environment occurred around the same time.
While North Korea’s official discourse maintained a narrative that North Korea was a “pollution-free country” within the framework of the Cold War, it seems that internally, both the regime and the people were already aware of the problem of pollution in North Korean society. Although the word konghae was not directly used, it is highly probable that there were internal guidelines calling attention to the problem of pollution and implementing measures to prevent it. For instance, Kim Il Sung said that the air in Ch’ǒngjin was bad in his speech at the enlarged meeting of the joint plenum of the Ch’ǒngjin City Committee and the North Hamgyǒng Province Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on June 20, 1979.45 Ch’ǒngjin is a North Korean city where iron and steel mills and chemical fiber factories are concentrated.
The air in the city of Ch’ǒngjin is as bad as the air in the city of Hamhŭng. Smoke from factories and enterprises in the city of Ch’ǒngjin is currently polluting the air, causing considerable inconvenience to the lives of citizens. […] In the future, it is recommended that the houses in Ch’ǒngjin be moved to South Ch’ǒngjin. When we originally built houses in Ch’ǒngjin, we should have taken into account the harmful gases from factories and enterprises, but we failed to do so. Therefore, a few years ago, I tasked the relevant departments to redraw the city’s urban construction plan.46
In this speech, Kim Il Sung urged party cadres to thoroughly identify places where harmful gases and dust were emitted and to take measures to prevent air pollution and relocate people’s homes in Ch’ǒngjin.47 Although this 1979 speech was published in 1987, it may be one clue to show that North Korea was experiencing pollution problems at the time and was aware of them. The adoption of the Environmental Protection Law in April 1986 was also a reflection of the fact that North Korea could no longer put off taking practical measures to address environmental problems. North Korea tends to admit problems only after a long time has passed. In 1990, a Rodong Sinmun article was published that acknowledged that North Korea had pollution problems in the mid-1960s, though the article did not use the word konghae.48

Developmentalism Unproblematized

The previous section examined how the konghae problem was described within the Cold War framework in 1970s North Korea. A discussion of the social and political context of the time is incomplete without addressing developmentalism, which was then and largely remains an unchallenged doctrine. Regardless of their social system, modern states pursue science and technology-based industrialization, taking a firm developmentalist or productivist perspective. An honest evaluation of development, however, should consider its effects on the environment.
Although environmental problems such as konghae are intertwined with industrialization, there are not many attempts to contemplate developmentalism itself from this point of view. It was the same in 1970s North Korea. Developmentalism was not problematized. Even in the 1990s, when a deeper social awareness of environmental problems beyond pollution problems emerged, North Korea maintained the view that technological development would solve these environmental problems. This is in fact very similar to the technocratic perspective of the mainstream capitalist enterprises. In this gaze, nature is objectified and environmental problems are described in narrow terms as if they were a matter of technology, not a matter of system or structure.
It is well-known that North Korea, following the Marxist view, has followed the principle of productivity first. Marx, who critically dissected the dynamics of capitalism in his foundational treatise Capital, held that building a social system without exploitation of labor eventually boils down to technological advancement and productivity. Most socialist countries have based their ideology on Marxism-Leninism; the Juche ideology, despite North Korea claims that it is an original idea, also originated from a “creative application of Marxism-Leninism” and maintained the position of technological development and productivism. In this respect, some scholars have argued that anti-ecological productivism is the essential factor generating environmental problems.49 Regardless of the social system, framing the environment in ways that transcend the legacy of modern industrialism remains a challenge.


North Korea’s environmental discourse around konghae in the 1970s was rooted in Cold War ideology, focusing on criticizing capitalist societies while extolling itself as a pollution-free country. In particular, South Korea’s import of Japanese polluting industries was the direct cause of the introduction of the term konghae into North Korea and the spread of related discourse. The growing international awareness of environmental issues and discussions on how to address them may also have played an indirect role in this process.
The discourse criticizing pollution expanded, however, as it became harder to ignore the growing phenomenon of pollution within the country and awareness of pollution became more common throughout North Korean society. This led to institutional efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to actually respond to environmental concerns in North Korea, such as the enactment of the Environmental Protection Law in 1986 and the inclusion of environmental rights into the Constitution in 1992. It was through this process in the 1970s that North Korea’s environmental discourse shifted from a narrow focus on konghae to a broader, more comprehensive understanding of the environment.50 Despite this shift, the developmentalist view that technological progress can solve environmental problems persists in the DPRK. Within North Korea’s Cold War developmentalism paradigm, the concept of the environment continues to be (re)constructed as a sociotechnical imaginary.
Cold War developmentalist framing of environmental issues is not a phenomenon unique to North Korea. South Korea is by no means free from the influence of this perspective.51 Given that environmental problems transcend national boundaries, considering the environment more holistically–consciously removing the frame of Cold War developmentalism– might be one way to introduce a crack into the old Cold War relational structure between the two Koreas.
As McNeill and Unger have noted, there are considerable connections between the Cold War and the concerns of environmental history.52 The rapid development of science and technology-based industries was a critical indicator in Cold War competition, and such significant economic growth necessarily brings environmental problems such as pollution. For example, in order to achieve high growth, governments and companies cooperate to lower production costs by allowing pollution such as wastewater discharge. In addition, environmental/ natural modification through large-scale infrastructure construction, such as dams, highways, and railroads, was just as important a Cold War battle-ground as economic development, for both were based on advances in science and technology. This paper has only scratched the surface of the Cold War’s impact on the environment through North Korea’s konghae discourse in the 1970s, and further research is needed on various aspects of this issue. For one thing, although this article has described developmentalism as a general characteristic of modern industrialized countries, future studies on the Cold War and environmental issues should include an analysis of the similarities and differences between developmentalism in capitalist and socialist countries. This would allow us to delve into the specific sociotechnical context of environments in various societal systems. Furthermore, an examination of the emergence of environmental discourse in other socialist countries from a comparative perspective would be an important follow-up study.
While this paper was being written, the South Korean government allowed the discharge of contaminated water from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, sparking strong civil society criticism. North Korea also released a series of reports criticizing the current South Korean government’s handling of environmental issues, highlighting negative public opinion and media reports from South Korea and the international community. This echo of the 1970s import of Japanese polluting companies is a bitter reprise.


Chosǒnmal taesajǒn [Korean Dictionary] (1) (Pyongyang: Sahoegwahak ch’ulp’ansa, 1992), 283.

2  For a discussion of the history of pollution (公害, kōgai) in Japan, see Ken’ichi Miyamoto, Sengo Nihon kogaishiron (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2014). The Korean translation of this book, Konghaeŭi yǒksarŭl marhanda [Telling the history of pollution], was published in 2016.

3  Yun Hwang·Chi Yǒnghwan, “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒngbohobǒp(2002) e kwanhan yǒn’gu [A study on North Korea’s environmental law(2002)],” Hwan’gyǒngbǒp yǒn’gu 28, no. 2 (2006); Son Kiung, Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒngjǒngch’aek kwa silt’ae [North Korea’s environmental policy and reality] (Seoul: T’ong’il kyoyukwǒn, 2007), Kim Hyǒngch’ǒl, “Pukhan hwan’gyǒngbop ŭi ch’egye e kwanhan yǒn’gu: hwan’gyǒngbohobǒp ŭl chungsimŭro [A study on the system of North Korean environmental law],” Hwan’gyǒngbǒp yǒn’gu 29, no. 3 (2007); Kim Sangmyǒng, “Pukhan hwan’gyǒngbǒpche e kwanhan yǒn’gu [A study on North Korea’s environmental legislation],” Kukchebǒmmu 5, no. 2 (2013); Han Sang’un, “Ch’oegŭn pukhan hwan’gyǒngbǒp ŭi tonghyanggwa sisajǒm [Recent trends and implications of North Korea’s environmental laws],” Hwan’gyǒngbǒp yǒn’gu 36, no. 3 (2014); Chǒng Ŭnch’an, “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒngboho hyǒnhwanggwa kaesǒn pang’an [North Korea’s environmental protection status and improvement plan],” Nambuk munhwayesul yǒn’gu 14 (2014); Ho Hakyǒng ·Yu Pyǒnghyǒk, “Pukhan ŭi chayǒnhwan’gyǒng pojǒnbǒpche mit pohojiyǒk hyǒnhwang koch’al [A study on North Korea’s natural environment preservation legislation and current status of protected areas],” Han’guk hwan’gyǒng saengt’ae hakhoeji 35, no. 1 (2021).

4  Several studies using satellite images to analyze North Korea’s atmospheric environment or land use have been published recently. For instance, Myǒng Sujǒng et al., Pukhanjiyǒk hwan’gyǒng oyǒmwǒn hyǒnhwang punsǒk mit nambukhwan’gyǒng hyǒmnyǒk pangan: taegi oyǒmŭl chungsimŭro [Analysis of environmental pollution sources in North Korea and inter-Korean environmental cooperation measures: Focusing on air pollution] (Sejong: Han’gukhwan’gyǒngjǒngch’aek ·p’yǒngga yǒn’guwǒn, 2020); Yi Wǒnjin et al., “Chǒngjigwedo hwan’gyǒngwisǒng (GEMS) hwaryǒng mit hwakchang kanŭngsǒng-pijǒpkŭn chiyǒk ŭi taegihwan’gyǒng mit paektusan monit’ǒring kanŭngsǒng ŭl chungsimŭro [Possibility of utilizing and expanding geostationary environmental satellites – focusing on the possibility of monitoring air quality in inaccessible areas and Mt. Paektu],” presented at the 2021 Fall Conference of Taehan wǒn’gyǒkt’amsa hakhoe.

5  O Kyǒnghŭi·Hong Sunjik, “Pukhanŭi hwan’gyǒng oyǒm silt’ae wa nambuk hyǒmnyǒk pangan [Environmental pollution status in North Korea and measures for inter-Korean cooperation],” Minjokpaljǒnyǒn’gu, no. 4 (2000); Son Kiung, Nambuk hwan’gyǒng enǒji hyǒmnyǒk hwalsǒnghwa chǒllyak yǒn’gu [A study on strategies for revitalizing inter-Korean environment and energy cooperation] (Seoul: T’ong’ilyǒn’guwǒn, 2002); An Dŭkki, “Pukhanjiyǒk hwan’gyǒngmunje e taehan nambukhan hyǒmnyǒk e kwanhan yǒn’gu [A study of inter-Korean cooperation on environmental issues in North Korea],” Pyǒnghwahak yǒn’gu 12, no. 3 (2011); Yi Chaesŭng·Kim Sǒngjin·Chǒng Hayun, “Hwan’gyǒnghyǒmnyǒk ŭl t’onghan p’yǒnghwaguch’uk ŭi iron gwa sarye: hanbando eŭi chǒgyong e taehan koch’al [Theories and cases of peacebuilding through environmental cooperation: A study on application to the Korean Peninsula],” Han’gukchǒngch’iyǒn’gu 23, no. 3 (2014); Ch’ǒn Chǒngyong·Yi Myǒngjae, “Pukhan ŭi chihasu·t’oyang hwan’gyǒng hyǒnhwang mit hyǒmnyǒk pang’an chego [North Korea’s ground-water and soil conditions and cooperation plans],” Chijirhakhoeji 54, no. 4 (2018); Myǒng Sujǒng et al., Chisokkanŭnghan hanbando chayǒnsaengt’aegye pojon ŭl wihan nambuk hwan’gyǒnghyǒmnyǒk yǒn’gu [Research on inter-Korean environmental cooperation for sustainable conservation of natural ecosystems on the Korean Peninsula] (Sejong: Han’gukhwan’gyǒngjǒngch’aek· p’yǒngga yǒn’guwǒn, 2020); Shin Kyǒnghŭi·Ch’u Changmin, “Pukhan t’oyang・ chihasu oyǒm kwallirŭl wihan nambuk hyǒmnyǒkpangan [Inter-Korean cooperation to manage soil and groundwater contamination in North Korea],” Hwan’gyǒngp’orǒm 249 (2020); Na Yongu et al., Nambuk chaehaejaenan kongdonggwalli sisŭt’em kuch’uk p’iryosǒnggwa ch’ujinbanghyang [Necessity and direction of establishing a joint disaster management system for inter-Korean disasters] (Seoul: T’ong’ilyǒn’guwǒn, 2021), Choe Hyǒngsun et al., “Kihuwigi wa nambuksallim hyǒmnyǒk–pukhan REDD+ saǒp ŭi hyogwa [The climate crisis and North-South forest cooperation],” Kukche sallimjǒngch’aekt’op’ik 111 (Seoul: Kungnip sallimgwahagwŏn, 2022).

6  Son Kiung, “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒnggwan gwa hwan’gyǒngjǒngch’aek [North Korea’s environmental views and environmental policy],” in Pukhan ŭi sahoe, ed. Pukhan yǒn’gu hakhoe (Seoul: Kyǒngin munhwasa, 2006).

7  Ch’a Sŭngju, “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒngdamnon [North Korea’s environmental discourse],” Todǒk yulligwagyoyuk 49 (2015).

8  In Korean, konghae is a homonym with two different meanings: pollution (公害) and international waters (公海). I analyzed only articles containing the word meaning pollution.

9  As an example of the large-scale tideland reclamation in North Korea, a project to create islands for reed fiber cultivation began in the late 1950s. See Eunsung Cho, “The Field of Reeds on Silk Island: A Study on North Korea’s Reed Fiber Industry,” Taegu sahak 142 (2021): 6–7.

10  The Pot’ong River, running through the heart of Pyongyang and merging with the Taedong River, used to overflow even after a brief half-day of rain. This led to flooding of farmlands and houses along the river, resulting in casualties. In May 1946, the Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea, the highest national authority in the region after liberation, began work to improve the Pot’ong River, straightening the channel and building an earthen bank. On May 21, 1946, Kim Il Sung symbolically wielded the first shovel during the groundbreaking ceremony for the improvement project’s construction. Consistent with North Korea’s inclination to frame everything as a narrative centered around its supreme leader, the projects aimed at remaking nature also have a political dimension.

11  Son Kiung, “Pukhan ŭi hwan’gyǒnggwan gwa hwan’gyǒngjǒngch’aek,” 515.

12  Chǒn Taeyǒng, “Kyǒngaehanŭn suryǒng Kim Il Sung tongji ŭi saengsallyǒk paech’i e kwanhan sasang gwa kŭ pinnanŭn kuhyǒn [Comrade Kim Il Sung’s thought on the deployment of productive forces and its brilliant implementation],” Kŭlloja, no. 12 (1973), 54–55.

13  In this respect, North Korea’s “pollution-free country” rhetoric should not be dismissed as mere propaganda, for it was also a social technology of North Korea with implications for constructing the environmental discourse in the binary Cold War framework.

14  Chǒn Taeyǒng, “Kyǒngaehanŭn,” 55; “Multo malko konggido makta [The water is clear, the air is clean],” Rodong Sinmun, August 27, 1978.

15  The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred roughly 20 days after North Korea enacted its environmental protection law, which omitted nuclear-related content.

16  Sheila Jasanoff, “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity,” in Jasanoff and Kim eds., Dreamscapes of Modernity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 19.

17  Jasanoff, “Future Imperfect,” 19.

18  P’yǒnjipkuk nonsǒl, “ryǒksa nŭn taep’uri toelsu ǒpta [History cannot repeat itself],” Rodong Sinmun, June 9, 1972.

19  Ko T’aeu, “1970nyǒndae han’guk ŭi konghae(公害) sanghwang gwa chaenan insik [Pollution problems and disaster awareness in 1970s South Korea],” Kaenyǒm gwa sot’ong 28 (2021): 18.

20  Miyamoto Ken’ichi, Konghaeŭi yǒksarŭl marhanda, trans. Kim Haech’ang (Seoul: Miseum, 2016), 576.

21  The Limits to Growth is a book published by an MIT research team sponsored by the Club of Rome. It presents an analysis of the utilization and depletion of global resources, population growth, pollution, and food conditions from 1900 to 2100. Refer to the following webpage, https://www.clubofrome.org/publication/the-limits-to-growth/

22  The WHO is a specialized agency of the UN. In the 26th General Assembly of the WHO, which was held in Geneva on May 17, 1973, North Korea’s membership in the WHO was approved by a vote of 66 in favor, 41 against, and 22 abstentions. The Rodong Sinmun reported that this was another victory for North Korea’s foreign policy, despite heavy interference from the United States, Japan, and South Korea. “Konghwaguk ŭi kongmyǒngjǒngdaehan taeoejǒngch’aek ŭi ttohana ŭi pitnanŭn sŭngni,” Rodong Sinmun, May 18, 1973. North Korea’s accession to the WTO met other diplomatic goals; nonetheless, this demonstrates that North Korea was reacting to international trends at the time. Following its approval to join the WHO, North Korea established diplomatic relations with Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland in the same year, and with Austria and Switzerland in 1974. Chǒn Hyǒnjun, “Pukhan ŭi taesǒbanggukka mit EU kwan’gye kaesǒn gwa nambukkwan’gye [North Korea’s improved relations with Western countries and the EU and inter-Korean relations],” T’ongil chǒngch’aek yǒn’gu 10, no. 1 (2001), 104.

23  “Suryǒngnimkkesǒ ch’angsihasin widaehan juch’esasang’i uriŭi apkirŭl tŭngdaech’ǒrǒm hwanhi palkyǒjunŭn han uriegenŭn sŭngni wa yǒnggwang i issŭl ppunida [As long as the great Juche idea founded by the Supreme Leader illuminates our path like a lighthouse, there is only victory and glory for us],” Rodong Sinmun, July 26, 1972; “Summak’inŭn sǒul kǒri,” Rodong Sinmun, September 17, 1972.

24  Ri Unse, “Tǒrǒpyǒjinŭn hanŭl, p’agoedoenŭn ttang – chabonjuŭi naradŭresǒ [Defiled sky, destroyed land – In capitalist countries],” Rodong Sinmun, November 3, 1972. As for Minamata disease, North Korea explains that “Minamata disease, which originated in Japan, is caused by eating fish from Minamata Bay, which was contaminated by toxic waste from a chemical plant in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan.” “Konghaebyǒng [Pollution disease],” Rodong Sinmun, February 18, 1979.

25  Kim Il Sung, “Urinara sahoejuŭi chedo rŭl tǒuk kanghwahaja – chosǒn minjujuŭi inmin konghwaguk ch’oegoinminhoeŭi che 5ki che 1ch’a hoeŭiesǒ hasin Kim Il Sung tongji ŭi yǒnsǒl [Let’s further strengthen our socialist system],” Rodong Sinmun, December 26, 1972.

26  Kim Il Sung, “Tǒkch’ǒn’gun esǒ hubang gonggŭpsaǒp ŭl kaesǒn kanghwahagi wihayǒ (May 4, 1970) [To improve and strengthen the rear supply service in the county of Tǒkch’ǒn],” Kim Il Sung chǒjakchip 25 (Jan. 1970 – Dec. 1970) (Pyongyang: Chosǒn rodongdang ch’ulp’ansa, 1983), 122.

27  “Oeguk tokchǒmjabon’gadŭrŭl kkŭrǒdŭrinŭn kǒsŭn nararŭl p’aramǒngnŭn haengdongida [Bringing in foreign monopolists is selling out the country],” Rodong Sinmun, May 29, 1973.

28  “Oeserŭl kkŭrǒdŭrigo oesee ŭijonhanŭn kǒsŭn minjogŭl panyǒkhanŭn kǒsida [Attracting and relying on foreign powers is treason to the people],” Rodong Sinmun, June 9, 1973.

29  “〈Kim Chongp’il ŭi taeil yesok oegyo rŭl kyut’anhanda〉 – 〈Mindan〉 sanha 6 kae tanch’e taep’yodŭri namjosǒn danggukchadŭrŭi maegukpaejok haengwirŭl kyut’anhanŭn sǒngmyǒngŭl palp’yo [Condemning Kim Chongp’il’s subservient diplomacy toward Japan],” Rodong Sinmun, June 20, 1973.

30  “Ilbonesǒ tǒuk tǒ usimhaejinŭn konghae [Pollution is getting worse in Japan],” Rodong Sinmun, July 4, 1973.

31  Toyama Chemical ceased production in Japan in 1974 due to mercury pollution and established a local subsidiary in Inch’ǒn the same year. Nippon Chemical Industries established Ulsan Inorganic Chemical in Ulsan after its hexavalent chromium disposal caused dozens of deaths and made it difficult to operate in Japan. Ko T’aeu, “1970nyǒndae han’guk,” 19–20.

32  “Padaŭi mulgogiegekkaji mich’in hoksimhan konghae [Severe pollution is even reaching the fish in the sea],” Rodong Sinmun, August 26, 1975; “Namjosǒnesǒ pijǒjinŭn hoksimhan konghae hyǒnsang [Severe pollution in South Korea],” Rodong Sinmun, August 31, 1975. In South Korea, deformed fish have been observed in significant numbers since 1975. Ko T’aeu, “1970nyǒndae han’guk,” 22.

33  “Kyǒngsangnamdoesǒ paengno, waegaridŭri oyǒmdoen mulgogirŭl mǒkko ttejugŭm [Egrets and herons died en masse in Gyeongsangnam-do after eating contaminated fish],” Rodong Sinmun, August 1, 1977.

34  “Ilbonŭi omulch’ǒrijangŭro chǒnbyǒndoego innŭn namjosǒn [South Korea is turning into a sewage dump for Japan],” Rodong Sinmun, August 10, 1978.

35  “Pidanbojagi e ssan omul [Garbage wrapped in silk cloth],” Rodong Sinmun, October 12, 1979.

36  “Konghae mulchillo chilbyǒnge kǒllyǒ alk’o innŭn haksaengdŭl [Students suffering from diseases caused by pollutants],” Rodong Sinmun, March 14, 1977.

37  “〈Ppyǒwa sarŭl kkangnŭn chungnodong〉 – namjosǒn rodongjadŭrŭi pich’amhan ch’ǒji [Hard labor in great pain – the miserable situation of South Korean workers],” Rodong Sinmun, December 5, 1979.

38  As one article described it, “Serious konghae phenomena will remain ‘incurable cancer’ as long as the capitalist world exists.” “Onŭrŭi segye – chayǒnŭl p’agoehago in’gansaengmyǒngŭl ppaennŭn chabonjuŭi naradŭresǒŭi konghae [Today’s World – Pollution in capitalist countries destroying nature and taking human lives],” Rodong Sinmun, August 27, 1978.

39  Yun Wuch’ǒl, “Multo malko konggido makta [The water is clear, the air is clean],” Rodong Sinmun, August 27, 1978.

40  Sahoegwahagwǒn ǒnǒhak yǒn’guso, Chosǒn munhwaǒ sajǒn [The Korean Culture Language Dictionary] (Pyongyang: Sahoegwahakch’ulp’ansa, 1973), 74.

41  Miyamoto notes that since the 1970s, there has been a tendency in Japan to refer to all social disasters as konghae. North Korea has also used this term in this manner since the mid-1970s to criticize the penetration of Japanese culture in South Korea, referring to the excessive use of foreign words as language pollution. I have included these cases in the overall number of articles by year as follows: one in 1974, one in 1977, and three in 1978.

42  Pyongyang oegugǒdaehak ch’ǒllima yǒngǒgangjwa ed., Choyǒng sajǒn [Korea-English Dictionary] (Pyongyang: Oegungmun kyoyuktosǒ ch’ulp’ansa, 1970), 672–673.

43  Sahoegwahagwǒn kyǒngjeyǒn’guso kong’ǒpkyǒngjeyǒn’gusil, “Sahoejuŭihaesǒŭi saengsallyǒk paech’ie kwanhan t’akwǒrhan kwahakchǒk riron [An excellent scientific theory of the deployment of productive forces under socialism],” Rodong Sinmun, April 29, 1973. From 1970 until this article was published, there were three articles mentioning the term “natural environment.” It was mentioned once in a 1971 article criticizing Nixon and once in a 1972 article criticizing capitalism. In 1973, prior to this editorial, it was mentioned in an article on opera stage art.

44  Sahoegwahagwǒn ǒnǒhak yǒn’guso, Chosǒn munhwaǒ sajǒn, 859.

45  Kim Il Sung, “Ch’ǒngjinsi wa Hamgyǒngbukto ape nasǒnŭn chungsimgwaǒp [Ch’ǒngjin City and North Hamgyǒng Province’s central task],” Kim Il Sung chǒjakchip 34 (Jan. 1971 – Dec. 1979) (Pyongyang: Chosǒn rodongdang ch’ulp’ansa, 1987), 278.

46  Kim Il Sung, “Ch’ǒngjinsi,” 278.

47  Kim Il Sung, “Ch’ǒngjinsi,” 278.

48  The Rodong Sinmun article titled “Tangŭn inminŭl wihae pongmuhaeya handago hasimyǒ [He said that the Party should serve the people],” on November 17, 1990, mentioned that in the mid-1960s, there were phenomena in North Korea that could damage the natural environment and make people’s lives uncomfortable; for instance, not paying attention to the smoke billowing from the chimney.

49  For instance, see Andrew McLaughlin, Regarding Nature: Industrialism and Deep Ecology (New York: SUNY Press, 1993). For papers dealing with North Korean ideology along with theoretical discussions on socialism and ecology, refer to Min Kich’ae, “Pukhan ŭi saengt’ae ideollogi mit silch’ǒn e kwanhan koch’al [A study of ideology and the practice of ecology in North Korea],” T’ongil munje yǒn’gu 26, no. 2 (2014): 259–291.

50  Another important question for future research would be: When did North Koreans begin to feel konghae in their bodies? How did the human-nonhuman network act on that perception?

51  For research on developmentalism and the social construction of nature in South Korea, see Jin-Tae Hwang, “A Study of State-Nature Relations in a Developmental State: The Water Resource of the Park Jung-Hee Regime, 1961–79,” Environment and Planning A 47 (2015): 1926–1943.

52  As for the study on the linkage between the Cold War and the environment, refer to J. R. McNeill and Corinna R. Unger eds., Environmental Histories of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Cambridge University Press. 2010).

Figure 1
This photo was published in an article titled “Suryǒngnim ŭi hyǒnmyǒnghan ryǒngdo are konghae hyǒnsang ŭl morŭgo sanŭn uri inmin ŭi haengbok” [The Happiness of Our People Living Without Pollution Under the Wise Leadership of the Supreme Leader] on June 12, 1973. The photo was captioned, “A beautiful socialist modern city surrounded by green forests under an ever-clear sky – Pyongyang.” Source: Rodong Sinmun, June 12, 1973.
Figure 2
The number of Rodong Sinmun articles mentioning “konghae” in the 1970s.41 ©Eunsung Cho
Figure 3
Japanese citizens holding a street protest against the export of pollution to South Korea. Source: Rodong Sinmun, January 16, 1977. (left)
Figure 4
The photo is captioned, “Pear trees withered and died due to pollution as if to accuse the Park Chung Hee traitors who are polluting Korea by attracting foreign polluting industries.” Source: Rodong Sinmun, January 11, 1978. (right)


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