North Korea is often associated with electricity shortages. A famous satellite picture comparing the two Koreas shows how brightly the lights to the South shine at night – and how dimly they do in Pyongyang. The rest of the DPRK drowns in darkness, a fitting visual metaphor, to many, for the isolation of the country and the dysfunction of its state.
NK News has learned from numerous in-country sources that the situation recently took a turn for the worse. Even in the country’s capital, one source said a harsh winter and a crippled infrastructure led to an “unusually bad” situation – and while the predicament is improving as demand drops and the weather improves, a rocky road to recovery will be required if this is not be repeated next year.
Pyongyang is supposed to be the state’s showcase city: It’s the part of the country most often visited by foreigners, and as a home for the country’s “core class” of loyal elites it’s certainly the place with the highest standards of living in North Korea. Power shortages, then, should be a thing of the past – particularly if one takes into account the regime’s recent investment in imported power and new power stations. But the promise of Pyongyang, it appears, doesn’t extend to a stable electricity supply through the winter.
While none were able to go on-the-record due to ongoing work in-country – and the sensitivity of discussing these issues with the press, phone conversations and email exchanges with foreigners living and working in the North Korean capital reveal that the winter of 2014-2015 saw some of the worst power cuts in Pyongyang in years – some so bad that they could be jeopardizing vital day-to-day aid and the work of diplomats.
‘I wouldn’t speculate on whether it is worsening right now, but it has been pretty bad for months now and still is’
“What I can tell you is that the situation indeed is quite dire,” a diplomatic source told NK News in April. “I wouldn’t speculate on whether it is worsening right now, but it has been pretty bad for months now and still is.”
“I confirm that the situation of power supply was difficult in January and February,” said another. “We had frequent interruptions of power – more than usually – and, besides that, the voltage was very low.”
“Power has been a serious issue for a very long time, it depends on where you are, how much power you get, lots of different things,” another said. “It’s very intermittent.”
While North Korea’s capital is no stranger to these types of problems, another diplomatic source insisted that the situation had been “unusually bad” over the winter months, in terms of the frequency and length of the power cuts, but also in the quality of the power.
They described “very low voltage, beyond the tolerance of most voltage regulators, causing them and other household equipment to fail and to burn out” and told NK News that there was even talk from North Koreans of power shortages at home.
Many of NK News’s sources came from Pyongyang’s diplomatic set, for whom power problems are frequently a hindrance, and there is talk from many that “even in the diplomatic compound the situation is still quite bad.”
“The city was never brightly lit even compared to third-tier Chinese cities,” the source adds. “But nowadays you see it quite often that even the LEDs at the new skyscrapers (known as “Pyonghattan” or “Dubai”) are turned off.”
“Even in better restaurants power outages are often to be experienced, I would say, much more frequently than in the last two years, but that is only a personal impression.”
Another source described receiving an email from a colleague still in the country, which they read for NK News during a phone conversation in April, which described the grim situation in the capital for the past few months.
“Electricity supply is at its lowest in the last four years I have been here,” the email read. “In diplomatic part of town voltage is so low that none of our regular appliances are working. Water supply is very cold when it comes.”
It is not as though everyone is affected, this source argued, saying that while most of the country is provided with power on a first-come, first-served basis – and this includes hospitals – there is one sector of the population which is never left in the dark.
“It seems like anything related to the leadership always gets priority, just unquestioned,” they say. “And the quality goes down from there.”
“There is lighting available for priority places, for places that are paying for it or given priority. That means there is less for those who either cannot pay for it have not risen it as a priority.”
HARD TIMES IN THE COUNTRY
Venturing into the countryside, the situation was considerably worse than in the capital, according to numerous sources – a problem the authorities were open about in meetings with foreign diplomats and aid workers.
“The countryside, as we hear from different sources traveling across the country,” one source told NK News in late April, “is nearly completely shut off the grid.”
“In one open meeting of embassies and different agencies roughly two months ago, it was reported that a certain mid-tier city hadn’t had electricity at all – since December,” they added.
“Some provincial towns were reportedly without power for more than one month over the winter,” corroborated another diplomatic source.
There are many possible factors involved in this problem, of course, and a lot of speculation, but many sources point to the country’s reliance on hydroelectric power – and the drought which blighted North Korea last year – as being to blame for the winter’s particularly bad situation. As demand rose rapidly during from December, depleted water reservoirs and an under prepared infrastructure led to rolling blackouts.
“The recent problems with electricity delivery, at least in Pyongyang, started late November and I am convinced that the reason is clear,” a longtime resident said. “It is a really critical shortage of precipitation during 2014 in (North Korea) in the situation when more than 70 percent of installed power generation capacity relies on hydro power.”
“The main source of deliveries to Pyongyang is a 300MW Huichon hydro power station and the dam, water reservoir must be nearly empty from last Autumn on because the precipitation last year were very low, just 40 percent of average year.”
‘So when winter comes around, the rivers freeze, solar is of little use and demand goes up and it’s too much for the coal station to handle’
“I think it’s because of increased demand for power and also the thermal plant isn’t in good condition,” agreed another source. “So when winter comes around, the rivers freeze, solar is of little use and demand goes up and it’s too much for the coal station to handle the extra demand/gap in supply.”
Coal power has long been a source of energy in the DPRK. It’s cheap and easy to produce, but it is a major pollutant in a country long plagued with environmental problems. And without a domestic oil and gas industry, hydroelectricity is the logical alternative. But it needs rain to fill rivers and power dams, and the summer of 2014, traditionally a time for heavy rainfall in the country, saw some of the lowest precipitation in decades.
“As you may know, the country is very dependent on hydroelectric power and needs a lot of water to fill the reservoirs,” said a diplomatic source. “Up until recently there was an absolute lack of water with reservoirs nearly dried out (while normally they should be full at this time of the year).”
One source identified the problem as also lying with a strategic failure of the country’s centrally planned economy to properly organized the supply of power across the country, overestimating the electricity being produced and underestimating demand.
“For me the fatal problem is clear – North Korea’s leadership and the government overshooting the part of hydro power energy sources,” said the source, who serves in a diplomatic function in the capital, “and not investing into alternatives like building or at least reconstructing thermal power stations (using local coal in the first place but also imported gas and/or heavy fuel oil).”
A BRIGHTER FUTURE?
“More and more places are coming online,” said one source, when asked why they believed the power situation so bad, Pyongyang, it seems, is struggling to keep up with rapidly growing demand.
A report by state media in January announced a New Year’s drive, saying that “Officials and workers in the power industrial field of the DPRK … are now concentrating efforts on the technical improvement for increasing electricity output” and that power stations were undergoing upgrades to meet maximize production of power.
The situation is improving, many said, as the weather improves and demand drops, argues one source, who said that, in April, power cuts in the capital were becoming less frequent “as the evenings get lighter and the weather warmer.”
One source was optimistic, saying “I wouldn’t say it’s been getting worse overall,” and that apart from difficulties with infrastructure during winter, they had not noticed a general decline in the provision of electricity in-country.
“The rest of the year I think power provision has improved,” they said. “Though it can be tough to determine exactly what’s happening, for example a lot more light at night could be as much due to cheap efficient Chinese LED lights as it can be increased power supply.”
The state is also looking abroad for help. As relations between the two countries get closer, North Korea could be collaborating with Russian energy company RAO Energy System of East to deliver power to the Rason Economic Zone, and North Korean electricity imports from China rose sharply through the first 11 months of 2014 when compared to their 2013 equivalents, as did Chinese exports of diesel, gasoline and aviation kerosene.
‘… a significant part of the electricity generated in power plants is lost in the transformation and distribution system that needs substantial repair and upgrading’
Felix Abt, author of A Capitalist in North Korea, worked in a range of businesses in the DPRK from 2002 to 2009, said that despite improving infrastructure, the situation “remains a significant bottleneck for economic development.”
When working in-country for the Swiss technology company the ABB Group, Abt said he and his colleagues noticed that “a significant part of the electricity generated in power plants is lost in the transformation and distribution system that needs substantial repair and upgrading,” he said.
“The situation there is similar to that in agriculture,” he said. “A significant portion of agricultural produce is rotting on the fields in North Korea because of a lack of vehicles, fuel and good roads preventing it to be distributed to the cities in time.”
The authorities were anxious to fix the problem, he said, and as ABB’s company director Abt signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Energy Production and Coal Industries committing the government to improve and upgrade the grid. The project was pulled, however, when ABB left the country amid rising inter-Korea tensions in 2009.
North Koreans seem to be taking matters into their own hands, in some instances, with Reuters reporting in April that makeshift solar panels are increasingly popular in Pyongyang, and are used to charge mobile phones and the increasingly popular Notel media playing device.
North Korea has not, traditionally, suffered any more than anyone else from power shortages, said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University, who lived in Pyongyang in the 1980s.
“Historically, it was not (an issue),” he said. “It is not incidental that a hydropower station is depicted on the DPRK coat of arms.
“They did produce most of the country’s electricity back in the 1940s. But then the growth began to slow down.”
When he lived there, he said, the situations was “so-so,” and while there were no blackouts, all “non-essential” power was cut off after 10pm “and the city became really dark indeed.”
The line of the state in response to its power problems has always been to blame North Koreans for not working hard enough, Lankov said, combined with attempts to build small power stations on small streams, plus some highly publicized projects.
“(They) talk a lot, saying that everybody should work harder to revive the electricity production,” he said.
Most of the time these issues were not raised with the authorities, said one diplomatic source, arguing that they would be loath to admit fault, especially to foreign diplomats.
“I do not think that anybody from North Korean administration would listen to this,” said one. “They were always proud enough showing that they are the masters of their own ways of ‘doing things.'”
North Korea’s power situation has been “poor” for a while, said Martyn Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech blog and attributes it to “old, creaking power stations and a grid that hasn’t been able to keep up with demand.”
“Although North Korea has been on a recent renewable energy kick,” he adds. “Solar panels, windmills and hydro is increasing being looked to for power production. It makes sense because those resources are more or less free versus the main alternative, coal.”
In February, at the height of North Korea’s power problems, the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea announced, to much fanfare, some new “joint slogans” to inspire the people on the anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation and the founding of the party.
Among the usual praising of the leadership and the wisdom of the DPRK’s rulers, past and presence, there was a keen awareness of the power problem, urging the people to “develop and make effective use of wind, tidal, geothermal and solar energy,” and “support the Party with increased coal production!”
If the power problem persists, when winter comes around again, they’re going to need all the help they can get.
Additional reporting: Leo Byrne