North Korea mandates cremation as part of reforestation efforts

A woman in Wonsan, Kangwon Province rides her bike past propaganda signage promoting forest protectio
A woman in Wonsan, Kangwon Province rides her bike past propaganda signage promoting forest protection. Image: Daily NK

The North Korean authorities have announced that all gravesites located near roads must be removed and that all dead bodies be cremated as part of the regime’s “forest recovery battle,” according to local sources.

“The government has ordered all gravesites near roadsides to be removed because they were just scattered all over the place and impeded the government’s plans to reforest and create attractive scenery,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

“If the gravesites are not removed by the government’s deadline, the sites will be considered abandoned and subject to removal by the government.”

Since gaining power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has emphasized reforestation across the entire country. Under his leadership, North Koreans have planted saplings on land next to roads and railways, and has even ordered the confiscation of plots of land on mountains farmed by residents.

Kim has ordered the revamping or new construction of coal plants in each region of the country. During an on-the-spot visit to a reed production facility in Sinuiju in July 2018 called Silk Island, Kim remarked that “the paper industry based on reeds must be reinvigorated.” The country has since sought to replace wood with coal and reduce the use of wood by increasing reed production.

During his New Year’s Address this year, Kim called for greater reforestation efforts, saying “We should make proactive efforts to implement the tasks for the second stage of the forest restoration campaign, improve landscaping, urban management and road administration, and take every precaution against environmental pollution.” His remarks reflect how seriously the regime views the severe destruction of the country’s forests.

According to South Korea’s National Institute of Forest Science, around 2,840,000 hectares of North Korea’s 8,990,000 hectares of forest area have been destroyed. This means that 32% of the country’s forest area – around 46 times the size of Seoul – has been destroyed.

The regime’s increased interest in protecting the country’s forests is a positive sign, but the methods by which officials are trying to resolve the problem have been problematic.

Kim Jong Un planting trees on Arbor Day (known as "Tree Planting Day" in North Korea) 2015 to promote forestation
Kim Jong Un planting trees on Arbor Day (known as “Tree Planting Day” in North Korea) 2015 to promote forestation. Image: Rodong Sinmun

“North Koreans are really unhappy about the government’s call to remove gravesites that have been in their families for generations, and also question why the government is asking them to cremate their loved ones’ remains,” said  another source in South Pyongan Province.

“They are saying that the government is going to take their families’ good fortune away from them.”

Residents are also unhappy that the burden coming from the regime’s “self-sufficiency” policy is falling on them.

“People are saying that the government has not given them the tools or resources to cremate their relatives’ remains,” said the source. “Cremation requires a lot of wood or diesel fuel, but most people are barely surviving so it’s a great burden on them.”

As of early July, diesel in Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province, went for around 6,500 KPW while one cubic meter of wood went for 170,000 KPW.

Lee Sang Yong is editor-in-chief of Daily NK and previously spent a number of years working as one of the publication’s foreign correspondents in China. He can be reached at