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ICE Case Studies
Number 176, May 2006

North Korean Dam and Security Aspects

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env.-Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information

1. Abstract

On 30 October 1986, the Minster of the Construction Department in South Korea announced that North Korea was planning to build a gigantic dam (200 meters high and 1,100 meters long) in the Geumgang Mountain in North Korea. This Geumgang Mountain Dam was seen as a serious threat to South Korea for two reasons; First, the construction of this huge dam for several years would obstruct the source of water for the Han River which flows through various cities and major agricultural fields in South Korea, and as a consequence, destroy the South Korean ecosystem. Second, and more significantly, the destruction of the Geumgang Mountain Dam (intentionally or not) would cause serious damage to South Korea and potentially flood Seoul, its capital city. The Geumgang Mountain Mt. Geumgang is located in the north of the Taebaek Mountain Range, which stretches along the east coast of the Korean peninsula like a terrestrial backbone. The scenic mountainfs highest peak is the 1,638 meter-high Birobong; the mountain itself is 40 km long east-west, and 60 km long north-south. The mountain scenery changes so distinctly as each season rolls in and out that it has long been called by different names in different seasons. At sunrise in the spring, its spiky peaks sparkle in the morning dew like crystal diamonds; at that time, itfs called Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountain). In summer, when the forest is thick and green, itfs called Bongnaesan (Verdant Mountain). When autumn leaves blaze with a crimson tint, it assumes the name, Bungaksan (Autumnal Foliage Mountain). And in winter when the rocks are bare, it is known as Gaegolsan (Skeleton Mountain) or Seolbongsan (Snow-capped Mountain). Mt. Geumgang in North Korea, symbolizes national unification to all Koreans.

2. Description

In 1986, the South Korean government of President Chun Doo-Hwan announced that North Korea was preparing a "water attack" that could sweep away the northern part of the country, causing huge casualties. North Korea was "secretly" building dam to hold as much as 20 billion tons of water, which could be used to engulf South Korea, the government said at the time. Construction began in February 1987, initially funded at 63 billion Won ($60 million). [2]

     The announcement provoked immediate and widespread repercussions. It was followed by a press conference (7 November 1986) held by the Minister of the Defense Department. The minister described the North Korean dam as more dangerous than the atomic bomb. The Dam enormously intensified the tension between the two Koreas. To most South Koreans at that time, the Geumgang Mountain Dam was viewed as a dangerous, demonic military technology.

Location of North and South Korean dams [6]

     A group of South Korean scientists and engineers confirmed the government's claim that the Geumgang Mountain Dam did in fact have the potential of causing serious damage to South Korea. They also proposed a countermeasure to offset the potential power of the North Korea's Geumgang Mountain Dam. This was to take the form of the Peace Dam in South Korea. 

     The Peace Dam, 601 meters wide at the top and 125 meters high, has a water storage capacity of 2.63 billion tons, according to the Ministry of Construction and Transportation. It cost 400 billion Won ($380 million). The dam is located about 125 kilometers northeast of Seoul and is intended to mitigate damages in case North Korea's Geumgang Mountain dam collapsed, ministry officials said.      But the announcement was later dismissed as an anti-communist ploy designed to overcome Chun's political crisis, and construction on the dam came to a halt in 1990. In 1993, the Board of Audit and Inspection under President Kim Young-Sam's government found that the flood threat was "absurdly bloated." The actual North Korean reservoir also turned out to be 710 meters wide and 121.5 meters high and has a claimed capacity of 2.62 billion tons of water, less than one-eighth the Chun government's claim. The dam was completed in 2003.[4]

Concept of the Peace Dam Construction Plan

     But construction resumed after satellite photographs in 2002 found that the Geumgang Mountain dam was eroding, triggering fears that it would rupture in case of heavy rains.

     Possible water release from the North's dam has long been a source of security fears in the South, which faces lingering threats from its communist neighbor. Changes in weather patterns had also brought more torrential rain to the region so work was resumed on the Peace Dam in September 2002. Floods caused by the North occurred in October 2001 and in September 2002 causing hundred of thousands dollars in damages. The usefulness of the Peace Dam turned to be true finally.2]

     In September 2005, North Korea released a massive amount of water from a dam just north of the border without warning, causing massive flooding in the South's border area, reminding residents of the perils of living next to the communist neighbor that invaded the South five decades ago.

President Chun Doo-Hwan [3]

Chun Doo-hwan (born 18 January 1931) was a Korean military officer and the President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988. Sentenced to death in 1996, Chun was later pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung, whom he himself had sentenced to death some 20 years earlier. Chun was a graduate of the eleventh class of the Korean Military Academy in 1955. As head of the Army Security Command, he was in charge of the investigation into the assassination of President Park Chung-hee. On 12 December 1979, in what became known as the Coup d'état of December Twelfth, Chun ordered the arrest of Army Chief of Staff General Chung Sung Hwa without authorization from then-President Choi Kyu-ha, alleging involvement in the assassination. This led to a bloody shoot-out at the Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defense. By the next morning, Chun and his fellow eleventh class military academy graduates Roh Tae-woo and Jeong Ho-yong were in charge of the Korean military.
     On 17 May 1980, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country and dissolved the National Assembly. Many politicians were arrested, including opposition politician Kim Dae-jung, who was later sentenced to death despite protests from the U.S. Later, Chun commuted Kim's sentence in return for U.S. support. Protests across the nation were ruthlessly suppressed, most brutally in Gwangju, where hundreds -- by some accounts thousands -- of demonstrators were killed in the Gwangju Massacre. Choi resigned in August, and Chun was elected his successor by the National Conference for Unification, the South Korean electoral college, in September. In February 1981, Chun was elected president under a revised constitution as the candidate of the Democratic Justice Party (the renamed Democratic Republican Party), having resigned from the army after promoting himself to four-star general.


3. Duration

In progress (1986~present). Although South Korea finished to construct huge dam enough to endure imaginable water attack from North Korea in 2005, we can say that conflict still lasts between two Korean dams at DMZ (demilitarized zone) area due to possibility of water scarce at South Korean side. 


4. Location

<General Information>

Continent : Asia
Region : East Asia
Country : Korea

Geography of the Korean Penisula [5]

Korea lies adjacent to China and Japan. The northern border of Korea is formed by the Amnokgang (Yalu) and Dumangang (Tumen) rivers, which separate it from Manchuria. A 16-kilometer segment of the Dumangang to the east also serves as a natural border with Russia. The west coast of the Korean Peninsula is bounded by the Korean Bay to the north and the West Sea to the south; the east coast faces the East Sea.

Two hundred kilometers separate the peninsula from eastern China. The shortest distance between Korean and Chinese coasts is 200 kilometers and from the southeastern tip of the peninsula, the nearest point on the Japanese coast is also about 200 kilometers away.

Because of its unique geographical location, Chinese culture filtered into Japan through Korea; a common cultural sphere of Buddhism and Confucianism was thus established between the three countries.

The Korean Peninsula extends about 1,000 kilometers southward from the northeast Asian continental landmass. Roughly 300 kilometers in width, climate variations are more pronounced along the south-north axis. Differences in plant vegetation can be seen between the colder north and the warmer south.

The peninsula and all of its associated islands lie between 33 06'40"N and 43 00'39"N parallels and 124 11'00"E and 131 52'08"E meridians. The latitudinal location of Korea is similar to that of the Iberian Peninsula and Greece. The entire peninsula corresponds approximately to the north-south span of the state of California. [5]



5. Actors

Bilateral between South and North Korea. Ordinarily, all kind of matters with regard to security issues on the Korean Peninsula can not be isolated  with surrounding powers' national interests and used to call their intervention toward peninsula, but this case has been exceptional and dealt with bilaterally between two Koreas.


South Korea (conventional long form: Republic of Korea) [7]

Population: 48,422,644 (July 2005 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 0.38% (2005 est.)

Government Type: republic

GDP (purchasing power parity): $983.3 billion (2005 est.)

GDP - Real Growth Rate: 3.7% (2005 est.)

Manpower Available for Military Service: males age 20-49: 12,458,257 (2005 est.)

Manpower Reaching Military Service Age Annually: males 344,723 (2005 est.)

Military Expenditures - dollar figure: $20 billion FY05 (2005)


North Korea (conventional long form: Democratic People's Republic of Korea)

Population: 22,912,177 (July 2005 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 0.9% (2005 est.)

Government Type: Communist state one-man dictatorship

GDP (purchasing power parity): $40 billion (2005 est.)

GDP - Real Growth Rate: 1% (2005 est.)

Manpower Available for Military Service: males age 17-49: 5,851,801 (2005 est.)

Manpower Reaching Military Service Age Annually: males 194,605 (2005 est.)

Military Expenditures - dollar figure: $5,217.4 million (FY02)



6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat Loss [HABIT]

By construction of a huge dam by North Korea, South Korean government worried about 2 cases. First, the construction of this huge dam for several years would obstruct the source of water for the Han River which flows through various cities and major agricultural fields in South Korea, and as a consequence, destroy the South Korean ecosystem. Second, and more significantly, the destruction of the Geumgang Mountain Dam (intentionally or not) would cause serious damage to South Korea and potentially flood Seoul, its capital city.

       From above two cases, either flood or water loss, we can define this type of environmental problem as HABITAT.

Water Flow on the Han River from North to South  [6]


7. Type of Habitat: Temperate (with rainfall heavier in summer than winter)

The climate of Korea is characterized by four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. The contrast between winter and summer is striking. Winter is bitterly cold and is influenced primarily by cold Siberian fronts. Summer is hot and humid due to the maritime pacific high. The transitional seasons, spring and autumn are sunny and generally dry. Temperatures in all seasons are somewhat lower than those at the corresponding latitudes in other continents, such as North America or Western Europe. The temperatures in Seoul, which is in the latitude of Richmond, Va., are closer to those in New York which is located 500 kilometers (300 miles) farther north from the latitude of Seoul. The variation of annual mean temperature ranges from 10oC to 16oC except for the mountainous areas. August is the hottest month with the mean temperature ranging from 19oC to 27oC. January is the coldest month with the mean temperature ranging from -8oC to 7oC. Annual precipitation is about 1,300mm in the central region. More than a half of the total rainfall is concentrated in summer, while precipitation in winter is less than 10 percent of the annual total.      The prevailing winds are southeasterly to southwesterly in summer, and northwesterly in winter. The winds are stronger in winter, from December to February, than those in other seasons. The land-sea breeze becomes dominant with weakened monsoon winds in the transitional months, September and October.

     The relative humidity is the highest in July with 80 percent to 90 percent nationwide, and is the lowest in January and April with 30 percent to 50 percent. It has a moderate value of about 70 percent in September and October. The monsoon front approaches the Korean Peninsula from the south in late June, moving gradually to the north. Significant rainfall occurs when a stationary front spreads over the peninsula.[5]

     The rainy season over Korea, the so- called jangma, continues for a month from late June to late July. A short period of rainfall comes in early September when the monsoon front retreats back to the north. This rain occurs over a period of 30-40 days in June through July at all points of South Korea, and accounts for more than 50 percent of annual precipitation in most regions.

     Annually, about 28 typhoons occur in the western Pacific, and only two or three among them approach the Korean Peninsula between July and October.

     Precipitation distribution on the Korean Peninsula is mainly affected by orography. The southern coastal and its adjacent mountain regions have the largest amount of annual precipitation which is over 1,500mm (60 inches). The sheltered upper Amnokgang (Yalu) river basin in the north, on the other hand, experiences less than 600mm (24 inches). Since the precipitation is larger in the crop growing areas in the south, water needs for agriculture are normally well met. Even though the annual mean precipitation is more than 1,200mm (48 inches), Korea often experiences drought due to the large fluctuation and variation of rainfall, making the management of water resources difficult.
Therefore, climate in the summer as well as geography are very important factor to understand environment and conflict between South and North Korea at this case study.


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Although this case is bilateral conflict between two Koreas, the result must be one-sided act and one-sided harm because of geographical advantage which North Korea has. For example, we can think security threat of water scarcity caused by huge dam construction between several Arab states and Israel. Since South Korean cities and Israel is located on on the lower river, they will be harm sites.

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

Although war has not yet broken out between the nations involved, the tension between two Koreas was enormously intensified. But I am wondering about this type of conflict between two Koreas to be interstate or intrastate, because each Korean government define opponent to be illegal armament group at their constitution. Since two Koreas joined the United Nations on September 1991, I define this conflict as interstate.

10. Level of Conflict: Threat

Although there were no direct fatalities by this dam construction competition between two Koreas, I define the level of conflict of this case as threat. N. Korea used this Geumgang Mountain Dam as a kind of strategic weapon, and it was seen as a serious threat to South Korea for two reasons. First, the construction of this huge dam for several years would obstruct the source of water for the Han River which flows through various cities and major agricultural fields in South Korea, and as a consequence, destroy the South Korean ecosystem. Second, and more significantly, the destruction of the Geumgang Mountain Dam (intentionally or not) would cause serious damage to South Korea and potentially flood Seoul, its capital city. Gross Water Shortage Prediction in Seoul Area



11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): >1(8)

As of 2000, Seoul has 9,895,217 civilians (Korea Government, 2000).

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct

Basically, this kind of threat as well as conflict between two Koreas is direct one because this conflict consists of bilateral act and reaction. By times goes on from 1986 to present, bigger dam which is the Peace Dam South Korea constructs, lesser strategic utility North Korea has. To sum up, total level of threat has been diminished as South Korean Peace Dam became larger and bigger. Based on the above graph which predicted total water shortage in Seoul area by South Korean Government, we can measure that total threat level by North Korean dam has been diminished gradually.

     When South Korean Government became aware of North Korea's dam construction on the upper side of the Han River which is one of the biggest river as well as a major source of water supply for people living in Seoul, North Korea had about 2.6 billion's invisible strategic method of attack, artificial flood, but it had been diminished up to half because South Korean Peace Dam reached to 0.6 billion volume of water kept in store. After South Korea finished constructing the Peace Dam for the second step, the total pondage which South Korean Peace Dam had surplussed one of North Korean's Geungangsan Dam finally.

     But the level of threat is not zero as ever because lower side of the Han River, Seoul area, has been more less water resources about 1.7 billion ton per year due to construction of the Geumgangsan Dam by North Korea, so that possibilities of conflict between two Koreas is still in exist.

     There are two solutions about this as S. Korea; First, South Korea decided to reserve 0.1 billion water resource in the Peace Dam all the time in case of severe drought. Second, South Korean Government persuades North Korea to discharge water resource from the Geumgangsan Dam periodically.


13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional


14. Outcome of Dispute: Stalemate

After complete construction of the Peace Dam in 2005, the outcome of dispute remains as stalemate, because the war is not over yet although the strategic usefulness which North Korea has been set off very much.


15. Related ICE Cases

No.58 - Korfamine (100%): Three years of rough weather, including hailstorms in 1994 and widespread flooding in both 1995 and 1996, have created an emergency food situation in North Korea.

No.52 - Dmz (100%): The Korean War never ended, due to the two sides, North and South, never coming to any sort of peaceable agreement. The armistice, signed in July of 1953, is the start of a long-term stalemate.


16. Relevant Websites and Literature

1. Korea Broadcasting Corporation, 2006. "Millionth Visitor to Mt. Geumgang" KBS Global News. 08 March. Internet. Available from; accessed 08 March 2006.

2. East West Service. 2005. "S. Korea completes 'Peace Dam' to block flood attack from North". World Tribune. 27 October. Internet.
Available from ; accessed 08 March 2006.

3. Wikipedia. 2006. Chun Doo-hwan. Wikipedia 'The Free Encyclopedia'. 06 March. Internet. Available from ; accessed 08 March 2006.

4. Hoh Kui-seek. 2005. Dedication of Peace Dam comes after 19-year hiatus. The JoongAng Daily. 27 October. Internet. Available from ; accessed 08 March 2006.

5. Korea.Net. 2006. General Information on Korea. The Korean Overseas Information Service (KOIS). Internet. Available from ; accessed 08 March 2006.

6. All right reserved by the Google. For more information about their privacy practices, go to the full privacy policy. If you have additional questions, please contact them. Or write to them at:

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7. Central Intelligence Agency. 2005. The World Fact Book. CIA. Internet. Available from ; accessed 08 March 2006.