Belmont Club

Little Christmas Tree

North Korea has accused the South of using Christmas trees as a weapon. “Seoul has decided to allow a church group to hang lights on a Christmas tree-shaped tower some two miles from the tense border. When illuminated, the 100-foot tall structure, which is located on the military-controlled Aegibong Hill, can easily be seen from the North Korean city of Kaesong.”

However, North Korea’s official Uriminzokkiri news website said plans by South Korea to spread Christmas cheer amounted to “psychological warfare”, and that Pyongyang would retaliate immediately if Seoul went ahead with its plans, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.

“The enemy warmongers… should be aware that they should be held responsible entirely for any unexpected consequences that may be caused by their scheme,” it said.

“This issue… is not something to be ignored quietly,” AFP cited the website as saying.

Pyongyang has in the past accused its southern neighbor of using the Christmas lights to spread Christianity within the closed Communist state.

But there’s probably another reason why Pyongyang hates the idea of lighted Christmas trees.

It reminds North Korea of the electricity they don’t have. A satellite photo taken from space clearly depicts the extreme contrast between South Korean prosperity and the grinding Northern poverty. North Korea not just the DPRK. North Korea is DARK.

"And there'll be War on Earth when Daddy lights your star, my little Christmas tree"

In a satellite mosaic showing the world’s nighttime lights from space the North Korean gap between the lights of China and South Korea make it appear as if Pyongyang’s miserable kingdom were not even there. But it wasn’t always like this.

Before the Korean War nearly all of the power generation was in the North. The Japanese, who ruled Korea for the early part of the 20th century built all the power plants in the North. So much so that when in tensions between between the two halves increased in 1950, the North attempted to destabilize the South by cutting them off from the power grid. The North was then by far the most developed half.

Under Japanese occupation, Korea’s electrical power system continued to develop, and a number of new companies were established, including Kyungsung Electric Company in 1915, the Chosun Electric Company in 1943, and the Namsun Electric Company in 1946. Nonetheless, the bulk of Japanese investments in power generation went to the northern half of the country–as Korea itself had virtually no natural fuel deposits, the country’s power plants were established closer to Chinese coal supplies.

Japan’s capitulation at the end of World War II led to the division of Korea into the Allied-dominated south and the Soviet-dominated north in 1945. In the initial postwar years, the northern half of the country continued to supply the southern half with electrical power. Yet the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 caused the power grid between the two halves to be cut overnight–leaving South Korea, with its undeveloped power generation capacity, in economic chaos. Power shortages became commonplace, especially as the war destroyed much of South Korea’s existing electrical power infrastructure.

But that was then and this is now.

However there is something even more sinister in the South Korean display. It were as if Seoul were cruelly gloating over something else that North Korea was in short supply of: trees. North Korea has the third highest deforestation rate on earth and the contrast between North and South is so great that “many North Korean defectors who fled the North on boats say they felt relieved to know that they had arrived in the South upon seeing coastal mountains with dense forests.”

Looking northward from an observatory on Mount Odu near the Demilitarized Zone, one will see North Korean mountains all bare. The North’s deforestation is caused by wanton reclamation of land and logging due to poverty. Hungry North Korean residents dig up mountain foothills to make cultivation fields for food and even cut young trees for use as firewood in winter. Deforestation causes frequent flooding and droughts as shown by severe flood damage in North Korea.

Although Norea Korea has no lights, satellite photos often show it burning from space as what remains is cleared off to make room for swidden farms.

The fires stop at the country’s borders with China and South Korea, a sign that they were probably deliberately set. Fire is frequently used throughout the world to clear land for agriculture and other purposes, but rules governing the use of fire vary from country to country.

Come on baby light my fire

Thus it is clear that the cruel South Koreans are taunting the North by allowing the lighted Christmas tree on at least three levels. 1. They can be Christians; 2. They have lights; 3. They have trees.

From a one point of view, the South Korean action is despicable. They are proselytizing. They are generating carbon. They are using trees as a weapon. Not since the White House Holiday Tree featured a Mao Tse Tung ornament and ‘green’, energy saving LED Christmas lights has there been such a controversy over a sylvan emblem.

However, North Korea has a big ace up its sleeve: the environment. It a big supply of nothing that it can trade for carbon credits.

If approved and registered by the UN, these would be the first projects for North Korea under a scheme called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This allows developing countries to earn tradeable carbon credits for emissions reductions from clean-energy projects….

Europe is the biggest buyer, with large polluting firms allowed to buy the offsets to meet a portion of their emissions reduction targets under the EU’s emissions trading scheme.

There are still a number of hurdles to overcome, one of which is the fear that Pyongyang will use the money it receives from Europe to build nuclear weapons. But apart from that, North Korea’s entry into the carbon trading market also raises philosophical issues.

Since at its most basic, carbon offsets allow countries which lower their “carbon footprint” to trade credits in exchange for emissions generated by emit carbon, can’t North Korea simply use its poverty for its carbon-trading scheme? Theoretically it could if its reduction in consumption were intentional.

To do this, North Korea must argue its lack of energy output was additional. “The concept of additionality addresses the question of whether the project would have happened anyway, even in the absence of revenue from carbon credits. Only carbon credits from projects that are ‘additional to’ the business-as-usual scenario represent a net environmental benefit.”

Only if poverty were not “business as usual” in North Korea would it meet this strict test. One article in the Guardian described how this works. If as Eric Holder put it, lying has to do “with your state of mind”, so do carbon offsets. North Korea may fail in the crucial test of intent.

Finally, the very idea of offsetting relies on what is known as additionality – evidence that a carbon reduction would not have occurred in the natural order of commercial life. One of the biggest UK offsetters, Climate Care, which is used by the Guardian, distributed 10,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs in a South African township; offered the carbon reductions as offsets; and then discovered that an energy company was distributing the same kind of lightbulbs free to masses of customers, including their township, so the reduction would have happened anyway.

The result of these fundamental problems is a crisis of legitimacy in the voluntary market, as offsetters lay claim to certainties that are beyond their reach. Dan Welch, a Manchester journalist who investigated offsetters for Ethical Consumer magazine, summarised it neatly: “Offsets are an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened.”

Only if North Korea could claim it voluntarily abstained from consuming energy could additionality be claimed.  There’s hope still. North Korea proclaims it is the “Worker’s Paradise” and therefore whatever poverty is observed is purely voluntary.

We could have been rich, but we decided to be Green

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