However, China’s limited electronic waste recycling facilities and swelling consumption patterns has rendered domestic containment of toxic trash a serious problem.
Like China, the US and Europe face this predicament, and for years have exported trash to developing countries in Asia and Africa at a lower cost and with fewer environmental safeguards. It is therefore somewhat unsurprising, but no less disheartening, to find out that China, too, is joining the ranks of countries opting to manage waste by having less developed countries manage it for them – often at considerable health and environmental risks.
The newest recipient country is not in Africa or Southeast Asia, as one might expect.
Rather, it appears that waste is being diverted to North Korea, China’s northeastern neighbor, whose western coast lies directly across from China’s prosperous coastal areas and many port towns. This revelation contradicts certain assumptions that North Korea, its economic development stunted due to a centrally planned economy and isolation from the outside world, was comparatively free from the industrial pollution that beleaguers many of its East and South Asian counterparts.
According to South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo, North Korean entities responsible for generating foreign currency are importing and burying industrial waste from China. The trade is being conducted secretly, according to reports, and critics of the trade from North Korea’s scientific community have been silenced.
As per the Dong-a Ilbo:
"Daily NK, a media outlet on North Korean affairs, quoted a source in the North’s South Hamkyong Province as saying, “The soil survey research center at Hamhung Institute of Technology released a research paper on its study of land pollution resulting from burial of industrial waste from China and a letter urging countermeasures to the Central Committee of the (North Korean) Workers’ Party. The institute was dismantled and senior officials and researchers were all purged.”
This is not the first instance where North Korea has been reported as soliciting other countries’ toxic waste. In the mid-1990s, North Korea offered to dispose of the North Sea Brent Spar oil storage platform for Royal Dutch Shell, which the company had planned to dump in the deep Atlantic in 1995. The deal did not go through.
In 1997, Taiwan officials negotiated a cash-for-nuclear waste deal with the North Korean government. South Korea mounted pressure to cancel the deal, and in the end, Taiwan did not send the 60,000 barrels of toxic waste to North Korea.
Since then, North Korea has become more aggressive in its offerings.
Solicitations from the hermit country have been found on a Chinese-language website called “I DPRK” that promotes investment in North Korea. In the words of one of these ads North Korea seeks plastic and electronic waste that “can be processed in the port but which other countries and territories are restricted from dealing in.”
The website further stated “there are no limits, any business taking advantage of [North] Korea’s low labour costs for intensive processing is welcome.”
Just how much e-waste has been sent from China to North Korea is not known. The photo above shows North Korean workers unloading e-waste on the docks of Sinuiju, which lies across from the Chinese border town Dandong. Apart from the trade of waste, China is North Korea’s largest trading partner.
In 2008, bilateral trade reached $2.79 billion, though a big imbalance favoring North Korea exists. North Korea’s pronounced dependence on China is illustrated by data revealing much of the country’s food and nearly 90 percent of its energy supplies come from China. This imbalance is seen by some to be giving China added economic leverage with North Korea.
As China’s economy and personal wealth continue to grow, while North Korea remains economically stagnant, it is not difficult to imagine the streams of electronic waste coming from China widening further and wreaking more havoc on the land and people, ill-equipped to properly handle toxic substances, that come into contact with it.