NK races to boost power in time for party an­niver­sary


North Korea is rac­ing to boost its elec­tric­ity sup­ply by up to 50 per­cent with the com­ple­tion of sev­eral gen­er­at­ing sta­tions by the end of the year and is push­ing al­ter­na­tive re­sources like so­lar — al­ready used ex­ten­sively in the coun­try­side — to ease its chronic short­ages, a gov­ern­ment ex­pert told The As­so­ci­ated Press in Py­ongyang.

In an un­usu­ally high- pro­file cam­paign, the North has mo­bi­lized le­gions of shock brigades to com­plete two large hy­dropower projects by Oct. 10. As is com­mon with ma­jor North Korean con­struc­tion ef­forts, the dead­line is a date of na­tional sig­nif­i­cance: the 70th an­niver­sary of its rul­ing party.

Of­fi­cials hope a no­tice­able in­crease will pro­vide tan­gi­ble proof that the party is work­ing to im­prove the im­pov­er­ished and heav­ily sanc­tioned na­tion’s stan­dard of living. Kim Ky­ong Il, a se­nior re­searcher at Py­ongyang’s Academy of So­cial Sciences, said the goal is a 20 to 50 per­cent in­crease in power com­pared with the 2014 level.

How ef­fec­tive its lat­est “speed cam­paign” will be is an open ques­tion.

Even achiev­ing its tar­get would leave North Korea with a small frac­tion of what it needs to fuel a vi­brant econ­omy or even meet some ba­sic needs of its pop­u­la­tion. Ex­perts stress the North needs more than just new power sta­tions — it must im­prove its in­fra­struc­ture to get the elec­tric­ity where it is needed, se­cure spare parts and con­duct sus­tained main­te­nance to keep the plants them­selves go­ing.

Sup­ply­ing its in­dus­tries and 24 mil­lion cit­i­zens with even a bare min­i­mum of elec­tric­ity has long been one of North Korea’s big­gest prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Since then, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has of­fered to help the North ex­pand its power grid, if it agrees to dis­man­tle its nu­clear weapons pro­gram, but to no avail.

North Korea’s to­tal, na­tion­wide elec­tric­ity out­put is be­lieved to be about 15 ter­awatt hours per year, give or take 10 or 20 per­cent. That would only be about enough to power Seoul, the South Korean cap­i­tal of 10 mil­lion, for less than four months.

It’s been es­ti­mated — though never con­firmed by Py­ongyang — that about one-fifth of North Korea’s elec­tric­ity is di­verted to its 1 mil­lion-per­son mil­i­tary. More­over, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of the na­tion’s power is used to light up Py­ongyang, where less than one-tenth of the pop­u­la­tion re­sides.

Kim, the gov­ern­ment ex­pert, said the North is shift­ing its fo­cus in line with leader Kim Jong Un’s prom­ise to im­prove the lives of the North Korean peo­ple and in­vig­o­rate its econ­omy.

He said North Korea is ex­plor- ing wind and ti­dal power sources and added that so­lar al­ready pro­vides as much as half of the elec­tric­ity in some ru­ral ar­eas. Small so­lar pan­els, seen by out­side ex­perts as a grass­roots cop­ing mech­a­nism where state-pro­vided en­ergy is woe­fully lack­ing, are a com­mon sight on apart­ment bal­conies and some coun­try­side farms.

“Our coun­try re­gards elec­tric­ity as the en­gine of the na­tional econ­omy, so the state is in­creas­ing in­vest­ment in this field,” he said. He added that a ma­jor por­tion of the 2015 na­tional bud­get that didn’t go to de­fense has been ear­marked for in­vest­ment in the power sec­tor, though he re­fused to give pre­cise fig­ures.

Kim said two ma­jor projects — Mount Paektu Songun Youth Power Sta­tion units No. 1 and No. 2 and Hui­chon Power Sta­tion units 5, 8, 9 and 10 along the Chong­chon River — are ex­pected to be com­pleted in time for the an­niver­sary.

The hy­dropower sta­tion on Mount Paektu, near the Chi­nese bor­der, was started un­der Kim Jong Un’s fa­ther, the late Kim Jong Il, but had been plagued by de­lays.

State me­dia in the North, of­fi­cially known as the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea, have por­trayed the race to com­plete the megapro­jects as a heroic demon­stra­tion of na­tional will.

“The young peo­ple of the DPRK have gone through thick and thin in hearty re­sponse to the call of the party to flat­ten even moun­tains, empty seas and con­quer space,” the rul­ing party’s news­pa­per said in a re­cent ed­i­to­rial. “Now is the time for them to pow­er­fully demon­strate their courage, unity and fight­ing ca­pa­bil­ity be­fore the world.”

But Kim ac­knowl­edged it’s hard to pre­dict how much power the units will ac­tu­ally pro­duce.

“If the power sta­tions now un- der con­struc­tion are com­pleted, tens of thou­sands of kilo­watts will be gen­er­ated,” he said.

“But this is only the ca­pac­ity of the power sta­tions. Ac­tual out­put dif­fers, so we will have to wait and see how much it comes out to.”

Kim said North Korea re­lies on hy­dropower for 60 per­cent of its power grid, and on coal-fired ther­mal power for most of the rest. Both are vul­ner­a­ble: hy­dropower to droughts and freez­ing, coal to sup­ply and qual­ity prob­lems.

Kim said a “once in a cen­tury” drought last year caused a 10 per­cent drop in the out­put of hy­dropower sta­tions, which he said was largely off­set by in­creased coal power out­put.

Not sur­pris­ingly, ru­ral ar­eas, which are low on the pri­or­ity list for en­ergy al­lo­ca­tions, ex­cept at rice har­vest time, were hard­est hit by short­ages.

David von Hip­pel, se­nior as­so­ciate with the Nau­tilus In­sti­tute think tank, which has done ex­ten­sive re­search on North Korea’s en­ergy sit­u­a­tion, said he doesn’t be­lieve the 20-50 per­cent boost is plau­si­ble.

He said the ad­di­tional elec­tric­ity from the plants could be “po­ten­tially very sig­nif­i­cant to the sur­round­ing area, or to what­ever area of elec­tric­ity de­mand the plant is con­nected to,” but not very sig­nif­i­cant on the na­tional scale.

Still, he added, as­sess­ing the North’s ca­pac­i­ties, and even its needs, is com­pli­cated be­cause Py­ongyang makes so lit­tle in­for­ma­tion public.

North Kore­ans also long ago ad­justed their life­styles to the re­al­i­ties of scarcity — for ex­am­ple, by not buy­ing ap­pli­ances or equip­ment that re­quire elec­tric­ity.

“The coun­try has lived un­der a short­fall for so many years that it’s dif­fi­cult to know what de­mand would be if there were enough power,” he said.

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