In a now infamous 2002 news briefing, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed to a picture of the Korean peninsula at night and stated, “south Korea is filled with lights and energy and vitality and a booming economy; North Korea is dark”. The picture quickly became synonymous with all that was wrong with North Korea, showing-casing a country pursuing a costly nuclear weapons program, simultaneously unable to feed or light its citizens. News last week from NKEconwatch suggested that things may have since got worse – with remarkable Aidwatch images showing Pyongyang and Chongjin to be dimmer at night in 2008 than in 1992. However, with a multitude of lighting related stories recently surfacing on KCNA, might North Korea finally be coming out of the dark?
KCNA started drawing attention to DPRK street-lighting efforts in April 2009 when it detailed the newly ‘spectacular night view of Wonsan’. In September 2009 it was then Hamhung’s turn, with KCNA explaining that the city had “turned into a fascinating world of bright lights’. Floodlights were allegedly installed at the Grand Theater, streetlights at various locations throughout the city, and even ‘rhythmic neon lamps in shapes of jumping fishes and flying seagulls’.
A February 2010 article reported that a “central control system” had been established in Pyongyang to operate streetlamps on a “scientific and technical basis”. KCNA asserted that the control system had enabled the Pyongyang City Street Lamp Management Office to build on its “already achieved successes”. Although these prior ‘successes’ are debatable, regular visitors to Pyongyang have nonetheless reported a definite improvement in lighting there. Previously, the main effort focused on keeping the Juche Tower illuminated late into the night –11pm by North Korean standards. Now, street lighting can be found in use on some of the busier roads after dark.
June 2010 then saw the refurbishment of the Kaeson Youth Park, one of Pyongyang’s theme parks – located close to the Arch of Triumph. Featuring modern rides imported from Italy, the garish lighting of the park is truly remarkable by North Korean standards and is regularly shown to foreign visitors. The following video gives a taste:
In September 2010 this site reported on the introduction of working traffic lights in Pyongyang, a development probably deemed unsuitable for KCNA to highlight. But the same month, they did report that Pyongyang had recently taken on a ‘fascinating night view’, with Kim Il Sung Square ‘brightly illuminated by large-size floodlights’, amongst other lighting related advances. In October 2010, KCNA then highlighted Nampho’s lights, where they claimed a combination of floodlights, street lamps, and neon lighting made the city look like it was ‘floating on water’ when viewed from the West Sea Barrage.
In December, KCNA went on to release a photo album entitled ‘The Beautiful Landscape of Pyongyang at Night’, which highlights some 70 nighttime scenes. And if that wasn’t enough, last week KCNA reported that engineers in the DPRK had invented a new form of billboard lighting, using 40% of the energy required for fluorescent lighting. The new lighting technology has allegedly been installed in shops and restaurants throughout Pyongyang, to help ‘add to the scenic beauty of the city at night’.
What to make of it?
Aside from the occasional turning on of a major Christmas light display, public lighting rarely gets the kind of coverage that it has been receiving by KCNA. So what is going on? Several things, it would seem.
North Korea’s electricity and lighting situation has long been an embarrassment for Pyongyang, highlighting how far behind it is compared to neighboring South Korea. With increasing flows of information coming into the DPRK, it may have become increasingly imperative for the regime to address this issue. With the recent influx of illicitly imported South Korean TV shows in circulation, it is possible that North Koreans were becoming increasingly aware of just how dark their country was. By investing in seemingly elaborate lighting systems, which until now much of the population had never seen, the regime may have been trying to tangibly reduce one of the starker differences between itself and the South. The lighting also of course has the added advantage of enabling authorities to show how the country is on course to becoming a ‘strong and prosperous’ country by 2012.
From an external perspective, modern lighting has been used to show visitors (to the right places) that North Korea is no longer the dark and bleak country of Rumsfeld’s infamous satellite imagery. Aware that scores of foreign journalists would be invited to cover the 65th founding of the WKP, it is likely no coincidence that authorities made so much effort to brighten up Pyongyang in the months leading up to October 2010. When the melee of foreign journalists arrived, media handlers made the most of the new lighting by bringing astonished reporters to see the bustling and brightly lit Kaeson Youth Park. The move was a win for North Korean propagandists wanting to push a more favorable image abroad, with CNN’s Alina Cho willingly taking the bait in her “Rare Look inside Westernizing North Korea” broadcast.
Finally, while electricity supplies are certainly improving, the recent abundance of low-cost, high lumen LED technology from China is no doubt also playing a major part in the lighting of the DPRK. According to Wikipedia, one high power LED can emit up to 7,527 lumens while using only 100 watts of power, while a conventional incandescent bulb of the same wattage would produce just 1380 lumens. LED technology thus enables North Korea to increase its lighting capacity while simultaneously reducing the power load on its aging grid.
To be sure, the lighting features mentioned in this post are still few and far between in North Korea. Pyongyang is still a very dark city, and the rest of the country is significantly darker. Nevertheless, there is evidence that things are slowly changing and the advent of cheap, low voltage lighting technology means that the benefits might eventually spread beyond the capital. The regime is also making the most of it, using it to show both internal and external audiences that it is modernizing, seemingly on course to realize Kim Il Sung’s dream by 2012.