March 15, 2009 11:59 pm

N Korea energy crisis could threaten regime

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North Korea’s electrical power grid is dying, according to international experts and foreign diplomats.

They say power failures will soon threaten the communist state’s stability as severely as famines and fears about the health of Kim Jong-il, its dictator.

Satellite photographs showing North Korea as a black void surrounded by South Korea and Japan, ablaze with light are already famous.

But flooded coal mines, silted-up hydroelectric power stations and plunging oil imports mean it is increasingly difficult to keep powering the few luminous pinpricks visible from space.

“What we are looking at is the x-ray of a dying body,” said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute. “There is not that much time left.”

The Nautilus Institute has been involved in energy projects in North Korea since 1992 and has collated what diplomats describe as the most credible snapshots of energy supply there. Energy demand from consumers plunged to just over 500 petajoules in 2005 from about 1,300 petajoules in 1990, according to the institute’s data, a stark reflection of the demise of North Korean industry. The petajoule is a measurement of energy use, equivalent to about 30m kilowatt hours.

Since 2005, power output has recovered a little but not enough to ward off disaster, the institute told a conference on North Korea in Seoul.

Traditionally, well over 70 per cent of North Korea’s energy has come from coal but the mines are in crisis because the country lacks the technology to pump out flooded pits, which may account for up to 60 per cent of mines.

The coal crisis has had an immediate knock-on effect in fuel for heating and cooking. In 1989, 77 per cent was provided by coal, now the figure is only 32 per cent.

“This indicates that many of the rural citizens are in survival mode,” said Mr Hayes. One side-effect is that people now scavenge for timber for burning, causing heavy deforestation, he said.

John Everard, British ambassador to Pyongyang until last year, told the conference, organised by western embassies in Seoul, that he had visited a new hydroelectric power station in the North. “The turbine was made in Sweden in 1938, and this was a new power station,” he said.

Mr Everard added that although flooding had been highlighted as a cause of agricultural problems in North Korea, its role in silting up hydroelectric plants and putting them out of action for weeks had not been fully appreciated.

“My own view is that the [political and economic] system is so decrepit that the end will come suddenly and messily,” Mr Everard said.

In an attempt to keep fuel away from the North’s military, aid has been supplied by foreign countries in the form of heavy fuel oil rather than refined products. Crude oil imports are estimated at less than 20 per cent of what they were in 1990.

“North Koreans are very tough but in the famine of the 1990s, they were told the famine was even worse in South Korea. They won’t accept the same lies again. If there’s no power in a bad winter, the regime won’t get away with it,” said a diplomat with experience in North Korea.

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