Within the last decade, power outages in North Korea have become an increasingly-prevalent issue. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that one of the largest-scale cases of a power blackout in ten years occurred on the 25th of November 2020. Some estimates proposed that up to 90 percent of North Korea’s electricity capacity was impacted by this incident, leaving vast areas of the country in darkness.
It is speculated by media to be the result of a combination of factors, primarily including lack of fuel, outdated hydraulic infrastructure and old generators. This begs the question: why does North Korea have power outages?
In an interview with CNN, North Korean defector Choi Choi-ryong highlighted that state authorities are primarily to blame for North Korea’s power outages. North Korea’s leadership, whose ideology relies heavily on military power and patriotism, does not prioritize the resolution of infrastructure issues. As a result, economy and development are ignored, having serious consequences for its citizens.
Given that there is very little transparency in North Korea, information on the outages is hard to come by. But according to Bloomberg’s Jip Leong, the country’s power infrastructure is the main contributing factor. This is corroborated by United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Program David Beasley: “We have looked at the power grid in North Korea, and it’s like ‘2030 lights, 1938 lights’; in other words, ‘no lights,’” he said.
From the North Korean point of view, the outages are caused by increased sanctions from the United States and other countries, preventing them from acquiring the resources needed for maintaining their infrastructure. This could explain why North Korea has been unable to develop its power sector, and why their citizens have limited access to electricity.
Yoon Young-Kwan, former South Korean foreign minister, is convinced that North Korea requires financial assistance from other countries to carry out the appropriate power-related maintenance. In fact, many experts believe that part of the solution could come from the United Nations, who, according to Yoon, “should provide the resources needed for maintaining infrastructure in North Korea”.
Motives Behind North Korea’s Power Outages
The motives behind power outages in North Korea are complex. Although the main cause of these outages is the poor electricity infrastructure, the attitude of the country’s leadership to prioritize military power and patriotism, and the sanctions imposed by international organizations all contribute to the problem.
Korea analyst Kelvin Kwong, for example, compared North Korea’s attitude to that of other countries by saying “In most countries, it is a priority to keep energy systems running, but in North Korea, this is not so much a priority.” This lack of priority is also visible in the way North Korea often diverts resources away from maintaining their power infrastructure.
Despite the inconvenient and profound consequences of power outages, it is not so much the effect on citizens’ livelihoods that worries international observers, but rather the security implications they create. Former South Korean Foreign Minister, Yoon, has said that “if the electricity infrastructure in North Korea fails to improve, it could give the country more of an impetus to develop nuclear weapons and use military power as a means of balancing its lack of electricity resource”.
South Korea’s Response To North Korea Power Outages
Recognizing the security implications of the outages in North Korea, South Korea has initiated several power-related interventions. South Korean foreign policy aims to stabilize the North Korean electricity infrastructure and secure peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The most recent development is the Electricity Development Cooperation Agreement made in 2018, which indicates that the two Koreas will “cooperate on developing, managing and maintaining the power infrastructure in North Korea”. This includes the construction of new power lines and the improvement of existing ones. In return, South Korea believes that its cooperation will help improve the economic situation and stability on the peninsula.
In addition, South Korea has been supplying North Korea with energy resources since the agreement between President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. These energy resources have reportedly helped the state-run electricity companies in Pyongyang and the rest of the nation to maintain their power infrastructure.
International Perspectives on North Korea’s Power Outages
From the international perspective, the power outages in North Korea symbolize a lack of alternative sources of energy and resources. Many countries in the global South are facing a similar situation, where access to energy is limited and there is an insufficient infrastructure to support the power needs of its citizens.
The International Energy Agency has pointed out that North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that has no access to electricity grid systems, implying that citizens live in an environment where electricity outages are a common issue. According to their estimations, North Korea has an electricity demand of 2.4 GW that is largely unsupplied.
This highlights a much larger problem than just the power outages: it is a shortage of basic infrastructure, a dependency on foreign aid and a continuation of the trend of failing to invest in development and growth.
Countermeasures Against Power Outages in North Korea
Given the fact that North Korea does not have access to the global finance and international assistance that other countries have, there is little North Korea can do to improve its power infrastructure. The country is also limited in terms of their ability to use renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power due to its geographical location.
However, there are some routes North Korea has explored to reduce the impacts of power outages. The most obvious solution is to decentralize the electricity infrastructure and reduce reliance on electricity imports. This could be achieved by improving energy efficiency, installing energy-saving technologies, and encouraging households and businesses to use energy-saving measures.
In addition, North Korea has also invested in micro-grid technologies, such as solar panels and batteries, which can be used to provide a local source of electricity and reduce reliance on the national grid. These technologies can also help to reduce the negative environmental impacts of power outages, which are becoming increasingly apparent in North Korea.
Conclusion on North Korea’s Power Outages
Due to the lack of transparency in North Korea, it is difficult to assess the true extent of the outages and their impact on the citizens of North Korea. However, one thing is clear: North Korea’s power outages are the result of multiple factors. These include the country’s outdated and insufficient power infrastructure, its leadership’s attitude towards development, and the strict sanctions imposed by external forces.
While South Korea has shown willingness to assist North Korea in resolving this issue through various agreements, the deeper underlying problems need to be addressed. The international community must recognize North Korea’s need for financial assistance and support the country in developing solutions that will allow for long-term stability.