Mapping environmental conflicts and cooperation



North Korea's Famine Refugees

Type of conflict sub
Intensity 2
Eastern Asia
Time 1990 ‐ ongoing
Countries N. Korea, China
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Conflict Summary Famine in North Korea has caused refugees to migrate to China. This has been a point of contention between China and North Korea, and other international...
North Korea's Famine Refugees
Famine in North Korea has caused refugees to migrate to China. This has been a point of contention between China and North Korea, and other international parties, such as the United Nations.
Conceptual Model

Climate Change

Against the backdrop of North Korea’s agricultural mismanagement, droughts and floods in 2007 caused a famine in North Korea.

Intermediary Mechanisms

The famine aggravated the precarious situation in North Korea, whereupon between 30,000 and 50,000 North Koreans searched asylum in China.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

China sees refugees from North Korea as illegal migrants. Therefore they have no possibility for seeking asylum in the northern neighbour state. Diplomatic tensions thus arose in two ways: Between China and the international community about China’s obligation to grant asylum to refugees, as well as between China and the North Korean government, as the latter requested China to send North Korean citizens back to the country.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversExtreme weather event destroys/threatens livelihoods.Loss of livelihoods leads to migration.Migration/displacements provokes interstate tensions.A specific extreme weather event such as a flood or a storm.Extreme Weather EventA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood Insecurity(In)voluntary long and short-term movements of people within or across state boundaries.Displacements / MigrationTensions between states that may but need not escalate into overt violent conflict.Interstate Tensions
Context Factors
  • Eroded Social Contract
  • Unresponsive Government
Case Study

As a result of famine and human rights abuses perpetuated by the North Korean government, Korean asylum seekers have sought refuge in China. The question of China's international obligations to North Korean asylum seekers and the pressure placed on China by North Korea to repatriate them has created diplomatic tensions.

In 2007, it was estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 North Korean asylum seekers fleeing famine caused by drought and subsequent floods, along with human rights abuses, lived in China (Bruno et al., 2007).  It is illegal for North Korean's to leave the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) without permission from the government. The Chinese government views North Korean border crossers as illegal migrants and they are exempt from seeking asylum (Congressional Executive Commission of China, 2014). Although China avoids direct confrontation with North Korea, the illegal status of North Koreans in China has been a point of tension and has led to the increased militarisation of the border in China in order to stop border crossings. In 1997, China allowed a North Korean defected politician to flee to South Korea, channelling harsh criticism from North Korea (Dhawan, 2013). South Korea has also criticised China’s compliance with the DPRK’s abuse of asylum seekers, also creating hostilities between these two states.

Following the 2014 UN report on human rights abuses in North Korea, China was found to be complicit in assisting human rights abuses towards refugees and negligent in fulfilling international obligations to refugees. China rejected these allegations and continues to comply with DPRK demands to repatriate North Korean citizens.

Future climate change impacts are predicted to further disrupt North Korea’s agricultural sector and food security by way of decreasing crop yields, changing precipitation cycles, and increasing incidences of extreme weather events. Given that North Korea has suffered from a decade of famine and economic isolation, and relies on a crumbling infrastructure, the country is not well equipped to adapt to climate hazards. The vulnerability of the country’s agricultural sector, coupled with its weakened institutions and political economy may threaten the stability of the totalitarian regime (Habib, 2009).

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Diplomatic Crisis Note of diplomatic crisis in case history, conflict purely verbal
Violent Conflict No
Salience within nation
Mass Displacement None
Cross Border Mass Displacement Less than 100.000 and less than 10% of the population are displaced across borders.
Destination Countries China
Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Resolution Success
Resolve of displacement problems Displacement continues to cause discontent and/or other problems.
Reduction in geographical scope There has been no reduction in geographical scope.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future There is no increased capacity to address grievances in the future.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been mostly ignored.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity There has been no reduction in intensity
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political

Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Government of North Korea
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal International
Government of China
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Symmetric: All parties can affect the environmental resource equally.
Broad conflict characterization Resource capture is not present.
Ecological marginalization is not present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse