China’s smog and North Korea’s environment and food security

Walter E. Parham, Ph.D.

March, 2013

Recent events

A dense, wide-spread layer of smog (sometimes referred to as “brown clouds”) moved across China blanketing Beijing, eastern China, and the Korean peninsula on January 17, 2013.  Smog like this takes place about every three years (Kirby, 2011).  Dust storms originating in the Gobi desert typically move eastward incorporating air pollutants from automobile exhausts, burning coal, and various industries.  In this January 17th case, particulate matter of 2.5 microns (est. spherical diam.), a size recognized dangerous to human health, reached a density of  990 micrograms/cu. meter, a reading far above the World Health Organization’s safe level of 25 micrograms/cu. meter.  A large part of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, lead, and selenium from China came with the smog to South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK).  Mercury probably came along as well because it is a common component of dense, China smog (Kirby, 2011) just as are the various combustion gases that produce acid rain and snow and contribute to respiratory diseases (The Chosunilbo, 1/17/13; 1/18/13; and Phillips, 2013).

Smog characteristics

The word “smog” is a combined form of the words smoke and fog.  Smog has  two general types, (1) sulfurous smog, and (2) photochemical smog (Gaffney et al., 2013 ?).  Briefly, sulfurous smog, common in Beijing and Shanghai, is high in fly ash, coal soot, and sulfur dioxide.  It tends to form in winter during early daylight hours and where concentrated it can be fatal, lead to high numbers of hospitalizations, or both.  Photochemical smog, which tends to form during the summer’s early afternoon, is more characteristic of areas where industrial, power-plant, and automobile emissions concentrate.  Its primary pollutants are carbon monoxide, carbonaceous soots, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and volatile hydrocarbons plus secondary pollutants (e.g. ozone) formed by sunlight-driven, photochemical reactions.  It too can produce acid rain and snow which adversely affect agriculture, trees and other vegetation, ecosystems generally, and human health.

Smog data for North Korea

Similar smog data (above) commonly are generated in Japan and South Korea.  Because of the North Korea’s (the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea or DPRK) self-isolation and secrecy, comparable data there are either not available or may not exist.  Nevertheless, a NASA satellite image taken as early as 2002 shows smog from China crossing the Korean peninsula.  For this discussion therefore, I infer that the characteristics of smog which pass over South Korea and Japan are representative for those entering North Korea.

North Korea’s agricultural problems

A recent conference and field trip held in North Korea arranged by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), brought together 85 North Korean scientists and 14 foreign scientists to discuss North Korea ecological restoration and food security.  Conference participants comments were mixed, e.g.,  there’s massive soil erosion and the organic matter and mineral content of the soil has been dramatically reduced as has the water-holding capacity of the soil; there is a complete lack of wildlife; the land is basically devastated; overuse of urea fertilizer produced barren and impoverished acidified soils; the North Korean government lacks the political will to fix environmental problems; it was impossible for participants to get solid data as to the scale and magnitude of the problem; and a lot of analysis was superficial and qualitative (Stone, 2013; Henderson, 2012; Palmer, 2012 ).  One North Korean participant commented that famine in North Korea continues due to desertification and pest outbreaks that followed 1990s deforestation (Palmer, 2012).

Food aid

 North Korea, a closed society with only 18 percent arable land, today is unable to feed its people without outside food donations in large part donated by China (Hatton, 2013; Bajoria and Xu, 2013).  [For a more in depth analysis of China’s dealings with North Korea see the Council of Foreign Relations review (Bajoria and Xu, 2013)].   At times, additional food aid also is donated by the United Nations, the U.S. and other countries.  However, the reliability of such food aid depends on North Korea’s behavior on the world’s stage at their times of need.

China’s polluted air

While assisting North Korea, China’s environmental problems have worsened particularly over the last ten years (Parham, 2012).  World attention today focuses on the dangerous state of China’s degraded air quality, largely the result of China’s long period of rampant, economic growth.  Winds over China transport their polluted air at least as far away as the United States.  However, nations closer to China’s east coast like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and North Korea receive the negative effects more quickly.

Sometimes when a nation reports the presence of or effects of China’s widespread “brown clouds,” China tends to downplay its responsibility.  For example, when U.S. EPA scientists in 2006 reported that China’s air was adversely affecting Los Angeles air, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) said that the claim was “irresponsible”, “not objective”, and “doubtful” (BBC, Aug. 3, 2006).  Experts from South Korea’s National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) reported on February 8, 2013 that winds had just blown China’s polluted air into South Korea.  A response from an expert of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was that “the (NIER) conclusion was made too hastily” (Hu, 2013).

Further, Japan’s Foreign Minister recently informed China that Japan was concerned that the serious air pollution from China that entered Japan may adversely affect Japan’s people and the environment (Agence France-Press, Feb. 8, 2013).   A Kyushu University professor said that the impacts of air pollution from China studied ten years ago today are  quite visible in Japan (Girard, Feb. 4, 2013).  Japanese officials on March 5, 2013 in their first-ever health warning concerning incoming smog from China told the people in parts of Kyushu Island to stay indoors, not exercise outside, and to wear protective masks when they go outside (SCMP, 3/6/2013).  Environmental ministers from Japan, South Korea, and China plan to meet in May to discuss ways to combat this pollution.  The comments from Japan, South Korea, and China come at a time when satellite imagery is readily available to determine smog movements.











Figure 1.  Brown cloud (smog) over China in 2002 moving east and southeast to Korea and Japan (credit NASA ).

Potential agricultural and environmental effects of China’s smog on North Korea

What might China’s polluted air mean for agriculture in North Korea and for the people of North Korea?  Wherever China’s smog becomes concentrated it is a threat to human health.  It contaminates food crops and adds dangerous particles and chemicals to the air.  Even where it is dispersed more broadly, the resulting acid rain and snow will add to the formation of the county’s already impoverished acid soils.  Further, acid runoff can damage fresh-water habitats and reduce aquatic food resources.  Heavy metals carried by smog also can pollute the soil.  Under acid conditions heavy metals become mobile in the soil and can be taken up readily by food crops.  Concentration of heavy metals in foods is an unseen hazard to human health.  Where eroded land is replanted with tree seedlings, a highly acidic environment is a clear detriment to successful seedling survival and tree growth.  In addition, the smog alone blocks sunlight and produces an annual mean surface dimming in China of about 6 percent (Ramanathan, et al., 2008) reducing photosynthesis and putting further strain on the growth of agricultural crops.

Heavy-metals soil pollution in China

Let’s use China’s heavy-metals soil pollution is an example of serious environmental problems.   Smog, polluted water, commercial fertilizer, industrial wastes can all contribute to heavy-metals soil pollution; heavy metals are China’s main soil pollutants (SCMP, 2/15/13).  At least 10 percent of China’s farmlands are estimated to be polluted with heavy-metals, and about 12 million tonnes of Chinese grain are estimated to be contaminated each year.  In 2006, China’s Ministry of Environmental Administration (MEA) began a five-year, nationwide study of 200,000 soil, ground-water, and farm-produce samples to determine the level and extent of soil pollution.  The completed study still has not been released to the public as promised.  Now, the MEA has turned down a request to publish the findings on the basis that the findings are a “state secret” (SCMP, 2/25/13).  The report may contain useful data on how much of the heavy-metals soil pollution comes from smog alone.


North-Korean farmers have no way to avoid the adverse effects from China’s smog.  Their options are few other than to continue to farm as always.  However, North Korea’s leader shows little evidence of concern for the improvement of the lives of farmers but instead focuses on increasing the country’s military strength, making war-like threats, and in making Pyongyang a show place of new buildings, stores, and amusement/theme parks (Asia Sentinel, Jan 21, 2013).  The 2012 NASA image below (Figure 2) shows graphically the low level of electrical-lighting in North Korea compared with that of surrounding countries.  The lack of lights country-wide is indicative of the country’s poverty level.

Figure 2.  NASA image of July 2012 shows North Korea at night and the near absence of electrical lighting in the country other than at Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital (credit NASA).


China’s smog not only adversely affects China but it drifts into Japan, and South and North Korea as well.  Of the three countries only Japan and South Korea have expressed their concerns about the smog’s negative effects on their own environment and human health.  The environmental ministers of Japan, South Korea, and China will meet in May, 2013 to discuss the pollution situation.  North Korea has made no public comments regarding China’s smog even though the effects are inferred here to be similar to those in Japan and South Korea.

China’s food donations and its smog affect North Korea’s food security in two opposing ways.  First, China’s food donations have helped to feed North Korea’s people since the early 1990s.   China does not want North Korea to collapse for fear that refugees would pour across China’s border.  So their food donations help avoid this situation (Bajoria and Xu, 2103).

Secondly, China exports its polluted air (smog) without concern for its adverse effects elsewhere even in North Korea.  The descriptions of Korea’s environmental and agricultural conditions provided by attendees at the 2012 meeting in Korea depict a serious situation even though quantifying the magnitude of the problems was difficult (see above: North Korea’s agricultural problems).  Nevertheless, the adverse impacts of China’s smog on the environment and on people are no mystery.  Specific effects of China’s smog on North Korea can only be inferred because no public data exist.  Nevertheless, the smog will not improve North Korea’s ability to produce food for its people nor benefit their health.

So, what are some choices for China?   Doing nothing is one choice but that choice is likely to have long-term negative effects on North Korea’s food security, let alone ignoring the expressed concerns of Japan and South Korea on China’s smog.  China could enforce its own environmental regulations and try to stop or significantly reduce smog production.  The obvious negative economic impacts on China probably would be large and difficult for them to deal with.

What could North Korea do?  If North Korea’s leader in fact wants his country to be food self-sufficient he could reduce his emphasis on having a “million-man” army, nuclear war-heads, and the missiles to deliver them and focus on repairing his country’s environment and agriculture, eliminating famines, and improving the people’s health.  Or, on the other hand, he can ignore them and do nothing and let events take their course.

Pollution generated by China’s massive economic growth has complex consequences at home and abroad.  Some can be hidden under the guise of a “state secret” but others drift away to other countries.  Economic development without concern for the environment has been China’s unstated policy for years and has led to the situations described above.  Now, tough choices rest with China’s leaders as to what path to follow to address these problems at home and abroad.

 References cited

Agence France-Presse, Feb. 8, 2013, Japan proposes pollution meeting with China,

Asia Sentinel, Jan. 21, 2013, North Korea’s hidden famine

Bajoria, J. and Xu, B., 2013, The China-North Korea relationship,

BBC News, Aug. 3, 2006, China hit by rising air pollution,

The Chosunilbo, Jan. 17, 2013, 60% of toxic fine dust ‘Comes from China’,

The Chosunilbo, Jan. 18, 2013, Toxic smog blankets Korea,

Gaffney, J.S., Marley, N.A., and Frederick, Formation and effects of smog,

Girard, R., Feb. 4, 2013, French, Japan bathed smog after China,

Hatton, C., Feb. 13, 2013, China’s delicate balancing act with North Korea,

Henderson, C., China Dialogue, Apr. 4, 2012, Ecological resroration in North Korea,

Hu, Q., Global Times, Jan. 18, 2013, China unlikely cause of Korean air pollution,

Kirby, D., 2011, Made in China: our toxic, imported air pollution,

NASA, 2002,

NASA, 2012,

Palmer, M., (Multiple interviews on North Korean environmental workshop and field trip of 2012),

Parham, W.E., 2012, Consequences of China’s failure to implement its policies to protect the land, water, and air: 1999-2012 overview,

Phillips, J., Jan 13, 2013, China’s smog affects South Korea too,

Ramanathan, V., et al., 2008, Atmospheric brown clouds: regional assessment report with focus on Asia: Summary, UNEP, 44 p.,

South China Morning Post, web edition, 2/15,2013, Pollution from heavy metals devastates farmland

South China Morning Post, web edition, 2/25/2013, Report on mainland soil pollution a ‘state secret’

South China Morning Post, web edition, 3/6/2013, Pollution from China triggers health alert in Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture

Stone, R., 2012, Seeking cures for North Korea’s environmental ills, Science, v. 335, p. 1425-1426t

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