The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With sweltering heat but little AC, North Korea proclaims ‘an unprecedented natural disaster’

A student shields her face from the sun while walking in Pyongyang on July 24. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Unusually high temperatures have been seen across much of the world in recent weeks — but their effects could be particularly dangerous in North Korea, a country under strict economic sanctions and where air conditioning is rare.

This week, the North Korean government called record-high temperatures in the country “an unprecedented natural disaster” and said that country was working together to fight the problem.

An editorial published Thursday in Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling party, highlighted the difficulties that the long stretch of high temperatures would cause for North Korea's agricultural sector, specifically crops such as rice and maize. The newspaper called for North Koreans to act as one and “display their patriotic zeal in the ongoing campaign for preventing damage by high temperature.”

The official Korea Central News Agency reported Friday that the temperature had reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and that the entire country was now working in a campaign to prevent damage to crops.

While North Korea state media focused on the potential effects on the agricultural sector, the Seoul-based independent publication DailyNK published an article Thursday that claimed the heat wave may be taking a deadly toll on North Koreans themselves, as air conditioning is rare, in part because of a limited and inconsistent electrical network.

“North Koreans with weak immune systems are collapsing due to the heat,” an unnamed source was quoted in the article, citing knowledge of at least two deaths attributed to the heat.

Since the end of July, many countries in East Asia have been racked by persistently high temperatures. The Japanese city of Kumagaya, 40 miles from Tokyo, on July 23 recorded that nation's highest-ever temperature, 106 degrees Fahrenheit. South Korea set its own record this week in the southern city of Daegu, which reached 105.7 degrees.

Air conditioning and other cooling technologies are used both in Japan and South Korea, but AC there isn't as common as it is in the United States. This leaves the elderly and poor, in particular, struggling with the heat. In Japan, where heat was blamed for the deaths of at least 116 people, the weather was declared a natural disaster by the government.

Weather records expert Maximiliano Herrera found that a number of North Korean cities have broken high-temperature records so far this year, including the capital, Pyongyang, which reached 100.4 degrees. According to Herrera's observations, the hottest area appeared to be Chunggang, which lies along the demilitarized zone, where temperatures reached 104.4.

Without air conditioning, North Koreans have turned to other cooling measures, including handheld electric fans and ice cream, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reported last week.

North Korea is under heavy economic sanctions because of its nuclear weapons program, and some experts suggest that the string of state-run media articles about the impact of the heat on the country's agricultural system may be a bid to gain foreign assistance.

Some say that the need for assistance is already evident. During a trip to North Korea in early July, Mark Lowcock, the top aid official at the United Nations, said there was “very clear evidence of humanitarian need here.”

North Korea suffered a famine from the mid- to late 1990s that devastated its economy and led to the deaths of as many as 2 million people. The famine was partially attributed to a several floods that were followed by a drought in 1997, but it was exacerbated by poor food distribution by the government.

North Korea in the past has suggested it is concerned about climate change. Last year, an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as criticizing President Trump for pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change, dubbing it a “shortsighted and silly decision.” North Korea is a signatory to the 2015 agreement.

More on WorldViews:

North Korea slams Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris accord as ‘the height of egotism’