Nagano, Japan – So many North Korean officials have reportedly been put to death this year that it’s hard to keep track of them. In most cases, we lack even names.

Thus it is with a vice-minister of forestry. All we have is one line in a South Korean lawmaker’s recap to the media of a National Intelligence Service report saying the vice minister “was the first to be executed, for speaking against Kim Jong Un’s plan on forest tree planting.”

Hey, what’s not to like about a plan to reforest North Korea’s naked mountains? Young third-generation ruler Kim Jong Un for months has been making a big deal about the need to do this, and do it pronto.

“Forests are a precious resource of our country and a great treasure that we must bequeath to future generations,” Kim said on the occasion of the annual Tree Planting Day. However, he went on, since the terrible famine of the mid-1990s North Koreans, “while saying that they are procuring firewood and provisions, have recklessly damaged our forests [which now] lie at the crossroads of recovery.”

At first glance, such words would seem sufficient to earn him an invitation to speak to a convention of Greenpeace activists. So what element of the exalted youngster’s forest plan might the vice minister have disagreed with? Not having been told, we must search for clues.

Geographer Robert Winstanley-Chesters in a recent Sino-NK article notes that Kim, like his dynasty-founding grandfather Kim Il Sung before him, likes to assign the blame for the country’s deforestation-related environmental problems to lower-ranking officials.

Quoth Kim: “As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountain.”

Could the vice minister have made the bad career move of grumbling (to friends he considered trustworthy but who proved otherwise) that – as a colleague and I pointed out in a 2007 article – it was his grandfather’s policy of expanding the mountainous country’s cultivation area not only horizontally but vertically, up the mountainsides, that led to today’s problems?

Again, we are not told.

Might the vice-minister perhaps have pointed out that in view of the cynicism shown by today’s North Koreans there’s virtually no chance for success of a same-old same-old top-down scheme to whip up enthusiasm for the state’s economic cause du jour – in this case reforestation –with a mass movement, complete with a campaign of propaganda slogans?

No, we’re not told the answer to this one, either. But we may be getting warm with our questions. North Korea used to hold Tree Planting Day on April 6, according to New Focus International and that was “an appropriate time for trees to be planted nationally.”

However, in 1999 the annual planting day was shifted to March 2 for propaganda reasons: “to commemorate the revolutionary work of the Kim family.” After all, it was on March 2, 1946, that Kim Il Sung and his then-five-year-old son Kim Jong Il – future second-generation ruler and father of Jong Un – climbed Pyongyang’s Moran Hill “to propose a framework for forest development in country.”

The ground in much of North Korea is often still frozen on March 2. You need a pickaxe to dig many of the holes for tree planting, and the water you pour into the holes may freeze on the spot, according to a North Korean escapee quoted in the article. Of course those seedlings die and have to be replaced later.

In other words the whole exercise is not focused realistically on reforestation. It’s focused on continuing to build the personality cult that keeps the Kim family in power.

A leader determined to carry out serious forestry reforms might well start by shifting Tree Planting Day back to April or even to May. That didn’t happen this year. With the vice-minister already reportedly dead, Kim – all bundled up in his winter coat – made his way to an Air Force unit on March 2 to do his part with the annual useless ritual.

Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

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