On May 14, North Korea held an opening ceremony at the Sunchon Chemical Complex to signal the beginning of a new project to build a “C1 chemical industry” within the country.
According to state media, the establishment of the industry is an important part of North Korea’s five-year economic plan, announced at the Seventh Party Congress in May of 2016 by Kim Jong Un.
On the surface, C1 chemistry may sound benign: put simply, it involves converting simple carbon compounds into other useful products that can have a variety of uses, from synthetic fuels for the transport industry to key industrial chemicals and agricultural inputs.
But the establishment of a national industry to pursue this technology may signal that North Korea is seeking to more quickly wean itself off relying on foreign partners for such resources, experts suggest, and attempting to enhance the self-reliance the DPRK consistently claims it enjoys.
The establishment of the industry is an important component of North Korea’s five-year economic plan
COAL AS A FEEDSTOCK FOR CONVERSION
In order to conduct C1 chemistry and make other products from the processes, you first require a feedstock – typically syngas, which is primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a major feedstock for many industrial chemicals.
But it has to be created first, and North Korea has identified a process called coal gasification as a means to produce the syngas critical for its C1 industry.
Ceremony at the Sunchon Chemical Complex in May
“The DPRK has concentrated its efforts on establishing the C1 chemical industry based on coal gasification,” an article from the Naenara News portal, published in December 2016, reads.
In the process of coal gasification, coal is fed into a gasifier that subjects its hydrocarbon compound to intense pressure and heat.
“Rather than burning, most of the carbon-containing feedstock is chemically broken apart by the gasifier’s heat and pressure, setting into motion chemical reactions that produce ‘syngas’,” an article on the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) website explains.
“The DPRK has concentrated its efforts on establishing the C1 chemical industry based on coal gasification”
Through using C1 chemistry processes, this syngas can be converted into a number of products, which the DOE says include chemical ‘building blocks” to produce liquid or gaseous fuels and chemicals.
North Korea has large stores of coal that it could use for coal gasification and it already has the facilities at the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, which underwent construction and refurbishment between 2006 and 2014, according to satellite imagery analysis.
And despite the opening ceremony taking place at the Sunchon Chemical Complex, the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, a major producer of chemicals critical to North Korea’s industry, appears to be playing a key role in the new industry.
POWERING THE JUCHE ECONOMY
In his report to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on April 11, Premier Pak Pong Ju stated that the C1 chemical industry will be responsible for generating key products for the North Korean economy in the industrial and agricultural sectors.
“A big stride will be made in putting the chemical industry on a Juche basis, including meeting the demand for fertilizer with home-made fertilizer in the main, building the C1 chemical industry and consolidating the foundation for the production of phosphatic fertilizer,” a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) article on the report reads.
Video in state media depicting workers at the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex
North Korea has long suffered from chronic food shortages, with ongoing issues around limited crop output caused, in part, due to a lack of fertilizer.
“Food production is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs, such as quality seeds, proper fertilizer and equipment,” the UN in-country team wrote in their 2017 “Needs and Priorities” report.
C1 chemistry processes are beneficial for countries that are isolated and that need to import key economic products
North Korea already uses coal gasification to provide the feedstocks to generate its own fertilizer at the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, and part of the goals of this C1 chemical industry expansion appears to be the ramping up of this process.
The country also already produces its own industrial chemicals but, as with agricultural inputs, North Korea is seeking to further increase this output through the establishment of its C1 industry. Again, according to state media reports, Namhung seems to be at the center of these efforts.
“Our complex assumes a very important duty in bringing about a turn in the development of the country’s chemical industry and setting up the C1 chemical industry,” a January article by An Yong Cho, chief engineer of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, reads.
“In this significant year, we are determined to supply enough raw and other materials to different economic sectors by setting up advanced production processes on the strength of self-reliance and self-development while putting production on a normal track at a high level,” it added.
In his report to the Seventh-Party Congress last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made mention of the C1 chemical industry specifically, as well as some of the products the country could generate with its implementation.
The chemical industry, Kim said, “should establish a C1 chemical industry based on coal gasification, create a carbonization process using brown coal, and perfect the sodium carbonate industry.”
Major applications of sodium carbonate include in the manufacturing of glass, detergents and other chemical feedstocks.
C1 chemistry processes are beneficial for countries that are isolated and that need to import key economic products, according to Professor Peter Styring, Director of Research at the Chemical and Biological Engineering department at Sheffield University.
“One of the things we talk about is the importance of C1 chemistry in a stranded community,” Styring says. “We talk about island nations – but those are geographical degrees of ‘strandedness’ whereas we don’t really look at the political strandedness.”
It is this “political strandedness” that might, in part, explain North Korea’s attempts to build a domestic C1 chemical industry makes sense, in particular its aim of using its C1 industry to improve its energy security.
In his report to the seventh party congress, Kim Jong Un said C1 chemical industry can contribute to “the production of such chemical goods as methanol, synthetic fuel and synthetic resin can be placed on a highly Juche-oriented basis,” according to KCNA.
North Korea predominantly relies on China for its supply of crude oil – a supply which appears increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations in the relationship between the two countries.
Current UN Security Council resolutions already prohibit the transfer of aviation fuel to the country, and U.S. unilateral sanctions are also hitting the North Korean energy sector, with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) recently sanctioning Russian companies providing oil to the DPRK.
In his report to the Seventh-Party Congress last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made mention of the C1 chemical industry specifically
But the growth of C1 chemistry could mitigate these restrictions: the generation of synthetic fuels is already an established C1 chemistry process and one that can again be achieved through coal gasification.
“One of the big services (of C1) is aviation fuel, the other one is diesel – so transportation fuel – and that’s the same for every country around the world that doesn’t have a homegrown supplier of hydrocarbon fossil fuels…it is aiding secure fuel supplies,” Styring says.
North Korea could conceivably produce such fuels, not simply for use in its domestic economic functions, but also for its aviation and military functions.
In all, the growth of C1 to generate synthetic fuels does correlate with North Korea’s consistent efforts to promote energy independence by other means.
“I think that the national emphasis on energy self-sufficiency is based on a combination of factors, and is longstanding,” Dr. David Von Hippel, a senior associate at Nautilus Institute, tells NK News.
“Whenever we have talked to delegations from North Korea they’ve always stressed that it is a national priority to get more of their energy from indigenous sources, especially wind and solar energy, as well as energy efficiency, and other domestic resources, in which they typically also include nuclear power.”
During the seventh party congress speech, Kim also made two mentions of renewable energy, saying that North Korea should promote solar, wind and hydro energy sources as well as from biomass – another feedstock for syngas and one on which C1 chemistry can be used.
BARRIERS TO DEVELOPMENT
While North Korea appears to be placing great weight on the development of a C1 chemical industry, substantial barriers remain before the technology might significantly impact the domestic economy and North Korea’s energy supplies.
Questions also still remain over whether or not “building” a C1 chemistry industry will involve the substantial undertaking of a new series of plants, or perhaps the refurbishment and adaptation of existing plants.
If it is the former, the costs would be substantial, requiring a huge effort to obtain the necessary industrial equipment, construction material, and piping necessary to be done on a national scale and to have any impact on fuel supplies.
“You can’t build one of these plants from the ground up overnight… and the scale of plant required to produce the level of outputs of fuel (for example) that you would get from an oil refinery is pretty massive,” Von Hippel tells NK News.
“For me it is still an open question whether the DPRK can at present produce all of the infrastructure they need themselves to expand their C1 chemistry processes, or whether they would need to import some required materials and/or key pieces of equipment,” he added.
This is a sentiment echoed by Professor Keun-Wook Paik, an associate fellow at Chatham House and expert on energy issues in Asia.
“The question is whether they do have the technology, do they have the capacity to manufacture these materials,” he says.
“It’s not just a matter of this technology development capabilities the question is do they even have the capacity to use it for practical terms,” he added.
However, given that there is already a line of coal gasification facilities in the country, utilizing the pre-existing plants could potentially be an option.
“Just because coal-to-chemicals complexes exist, it doesn’t mean they are running at full production capacity now, and in fact they are most likely not, so part of the announced project may simply be to refurbish or ramp up production in those existing facilities,” Von Hippel says.
“Doing so would likely take less time and require less investment than building brand-new plants.”
There are a substantial number of coal mines close to Anju and Sunchon where the Namhung and Sunchon Chemical Complexes are located. Nahmung, where the coal gasifiers are located, already has facilities for coal unloading, coal storage, and rail facilities.
As with North Korea’s attempts to expand its renewable energy sources in solar, hydro and wind – recently detailed in a document submitted to the UN – there is certainly a continuing push for a greater element of energy independence. Much of this, however, is constrained by a lack of financial resources.
At the end of the day, the goal for the C1 chemical industry to have a significant impact on the domestic economy, but full self-reliance may be too ambitious.
“My reaction is that a key reason for the DPRK regime to publicizing an approach to producing fuels using the C1 (coal-to-liquids) process at this particular time is that they feel a need to reassure the DPRK population that a solution is at hand,” Von Hippel says.
“Something like: ‘our enemies in the international community are trying to limit our access to imported energy, but through application of the Juche philosophy we have this other pathway that we can use to make the fuels we need from our own resources’.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Sunrise, Pyongyang, North Korea by yeowatzup on 2008-09-27 06:10:23