One of the most often reproduced images of North Korea is a nighttime photo taken from space.
Deep darkness covers the whole country, in vivid contrast to its Southern neighbor: even in the sea one can see a floating island of light, produced by fishing boats catching squid. Meanwhile, in North Korea, one can see only a handful of dimly lit spots, the biggest of which is, predictably, Pyongyang.
Another less known but equally telling picture can be observed in the Chinese border city of Dandong. One cannot say that Dandong’s streets are particularly well lit at night, but the city is very different to its North Korean twin city of Sinuiju, located on the opposite bank of the Yalu River. For years Sinuiju was completely dark, with very few dim lights occasionally seen from China. Only the statue of the leader (from 2014 it is two leaders), brightly illuminated by torchlights, is seen from China: while the statue was hidden being a small hill, a column of yellowish light goes up to the anthracite dark skies over the land of Juche.
However, it seems that these images are becoming outdated. When, early this year, I visited Dandong, I was surprised to see lights on the opposite bank of the river – even a green neon sign was visible. It was the first time in over a decade that I had seen the North Korean bank not shrouded in a near complete darkness (the only exceptions being the torchlights near the statues of the leaders).
In August things looked even better: while Sinuiju is definitely not flooded with bright lights, it is lit much, much better than it has ever been since the early 2000s. The number of neon signboards had increased to four of five, and many buildings had lights as well.
These changes reflect the gradual improvement of the economic situation in North Korea, but it is still easy to see that the situation remains quite dire – and will probably not improve a great deal in the near future.
There is some irony in this situation: when, in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea officially came into being, its coat of arms was dominated by a depiction of a large hydropower plant. Given the current situation, this is surprising, but in those days North Korea was well ahead of all its neighbors in terms of power production, so the might of its energy production was seen as an appropriate symbol of the young country and its economic prospects.
As of 1944, North Korea’s plants produced 85% of all electricity in Korea, so in the late 1940s, Pyongyang’s refusal to keep providing the South with electricity was a major blow to the then-struggling economy of South Korea.
The major foundation of North Korea’s electricity production were powerful hydroelectric plants, built by the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s on the Yalu river. The Sup’ung power plant, which became fully operational right before Liberation, in 1944, was the largest of them – some have suggested this is the plant the North Korean coat-of-arms depicts.
It is still easy to see that the situation remains quite dire
Incidentally, the emphasis on hydropower has remained a feature of North Korea up to the present day. Nowadays, some 52% of North Korea’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants – even though in recent decades the share of the fossil fuels (mostly coal) has increased significantly.
However, the once powerful industry has now suffered what was, essentially, the fate of all the “industrial heritage” North Korea inherited from the colonial era: decades of overuse and poor maintenance, magnified by the irrationality of the economic system, led to its steady decline.
By the late 1970s, North Korean cities and industry began to face power shortages, while South Korea was busily building a network of nuclear power plants which, by 1990, would flood the country with cheap energy.
So when in the 1990s Soviet aid disappeared suddenly, North Korean electricity generation collapsed. Most of the plants could operate only sporadically, due to the shortage of spare parts and fuel (mines had ceased operations and were often flooded).
Emphasis on hydropower has remained a feature of North Korea up to the present day
Thus, for North Koreans, the last 25 years have been a time of darkness, with frequent blackouts a part of daily life even in Pyongyang. Trains which, in the 1970s, were switched to electricity on the assumption that diesel fuel had to be imported, suffered most: in 2000 it could take a few days to reach Chongjin or Hamhung from Pyongyang, since the train would often abruptly stop in the middle of nowhere and wait for a few hours until electricity could be provided again. After sunset, most cities were plunged into complete darkness.
This severe electricity shortage even had an impact on North Korea’s nascent real estate market: apartments at higher levels cost significantly less, since elevators were seldom operational, and water supply is often a problem if you live above the third or fourth floor.
But the situation has improved in recent years: since 2000, electricity production has increased by some 15-20%, but things are still pretty grim by the standards of many other countries. Per capita electricity generation in North Korea in recent years has fluctuated around the 750 kWh mark, while in South Korea the same indicator is above 9,000 kWh. The gap is huge, and this is humiliating for the country which was once so proud of its power stations.
Predictably, this uneasy situation prompted North Koreans, always resourceful people, to look for new ways to deal with the electricity problem.
For North Koreans the last 25 years have been a time of darkness
Historically, the first solution was provided by small generators, usually powered by a small internal combustion engine, but sometimes by owners pushing bicycle-like pedals to produce electricity. Such mini-generators, imported from China, became a hit around 2000.
Even a short walk through a Chinese market catering to the demands of the North Koreans would give you many opportunities to see such contraptions. When visiting a more affluent North Korean city they can be seen on the balconies of many houses, as well as in backyards.
But as a source of power a mini-generator has serious limitations. To start with, it requires expensive fuel and is not very reliable, but its major problem is noise.
Generators can be switched on only sporadically, and for short periods of time, lest your neighbors get angry with you. The mini-generators are used to charge large batteries which now can be found in nearly all North Korean houses, supplying electricity to TV sets, lamps and other simple devices.
Alas, due to noise, it is out of the question to use one to constantly power a fridge or an air-conditioner. These household appliances, which often serve as status symbols in post-crisis North Korea, are remarkably power-hungry.
One of the most striking things one encounters in North Korea nowadays is the omnipresent solar panels, which became available only a few years ago and took the country by storm. The outside walls of houses are nearly all plastered with solar panels, usually hanging below the window of a multi-story building.
They are cheap: one would pay an equivalent of USD$40 for a 20-Watt panel which will meet the most basic needs of a household. Once again, electricity is saved in batteries and then used to run simple household appliances, which are increasingly economical these days. The introduction of the LED was a particularly good news for North Koreans, since it allows them to cut down on the consumption levels of the internal lighting.
This is humiliating for the country which once was so proud of its power stations
The third option is the most expensive and adventurous, but, ultimately, the most efficient. While blackouts are common in North Korea, for power grid managers some customers are more equal than others. If there are problems with electricity supply, it is homes which are switched off first, followed by non-military factories and less important institutions. If the situation is really tough, military bases, headquarters of police and major state institutions (like local party committees) are switched off as well.
Therefore, many well-connected and rich North Koreans have their houses connected by a privately laid cable connected to the supply of one of these powerful institutions.
In some cases, a cluster of rich people’s houses can be supplied by one cable connected to, say, a secret police headquarters or a military base. Such an arrangement is illegal, and bribes have to be paid, but the abundant and reliable supply of electricity is worth all the trouble. People who can afford this prefer such an arrangement which, among other things, means that they can use fridges, air-conditioners and washing machines.
So, as usual, people have found ways to survive, if not prosper, in a difficult situation. One can hope that the improvement of the general economic situation will continue, so in due time even less affluent North Koreans will be able to afford to have their fridges switched on without paying bribes to a colonel at a military base nearby – or using a noisy generator.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
One of the most often reproduced images of North Korea is a nighttime photo taken from space. Deep darkness covers the whole country, in vivid contrast to its Southern neighbor: even in the sea one can see a floating island of light, produced by fishing boats catching squid. Meanwhile, in North Korea, one can see only a handful of dimly lit spots, the biggest of which is, predictably,
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.