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The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

Just a question for Mr. Hayes: can he provide a status of the current energy situation in North Korea at the moment, from production distribution. You had mentioned the specific village that you had been working in, but from a more macro perspective, what the situation looks like now.

First, the quite detailed quantitative analysis on our website, which you're welcome to download, is the same basic analysis which we did with South Korea and with the North Koreans of course, and we also bring this to the Department of Energy and the State Department. Essentially since 1990, the country has gone from its peak energy use to one in which coal production essentially collapsed. Oil became extremely scarce after the Russians cut off their concessionary supplies. And by the mid-1990's, North Korea had gotten to the point where about half of its primary energy supply was now from charcoal, wood fuel, and [ultra weight]. Almost all the rest came from coal, and a small amount came from hydroelectric sources in the power sector. The bulk of the energy used was in industry in 1990 collapsed, so the share of the household structures and public structures increased substantially. All along, the military use of energy has actually been quite a small fraction, albeit increasing as the overall demand collapsed and they held the military more or less constant. In the 1990 it was about five percent of total national energy use; by 1995 it was about eight percent. And then the situation just sort of slowly declined and got worse, through to the year 2000 to today. And in the electric power sector, which is politically very important because it links to the light water reactors and to KEDO and the whole nuclear issue, they have about ten gigawatts, ten thousand megawatts, or ten very large power plants, worth of electric generating capacity, of which about half is hydro, seasonal hydro, and they don't have very much storage, so their hydro really only works when it's raining and when there's run on the river water. And the other half is coal, then there's about a half gigawatt of small-scale hydro and stuff like that. Of that approximately 5-5 five gigawatts of coal hydro, at the moment we estimate that about 0.8 gigawatts of coal-fired thermal power plant is available and working, 0.8 of the four, and about 2 gigawatts of hydro is working, maybe 3, but only when there's water. And right now, there isn't much water -it's the middle of winter there. So the peak power crisis actually comes right in the middle of winter, when there's not much coal to get into that 0.8 gigawatts of power plant, and even worse, even when the power plants are working, there isn't much of a transmission distribution system left to get that power to where it needs to be used, incredibly wastefully, at point within use. In short, there's very little electric power in North Korea, and what there is is of very bad quality, which means that other than for resisted uses, very solidly made in uses, electronics and machinery that is at all sensitive to the voltage fluctuation and the frequency fluctuation- which is enormous - it's plus or minus two to four Hertz, around 50 Hertz, not the normal 60 Hertz that it's meant to be operating at, and the voltage fluctuation is extreme, not to 220 but upwards of 400, with the lowest measures as low as 120. That's a huge voltage fluctuation. It's the worst power system almost on the planet. There are probably some sub-Saharan African power systems that are worse, but it isn't much worse …

So you have a society in which the grid and the electric power system have collapsed, when ten years ago, thirteen years ago this was one of the highest per capita energy-using, and power-using countries in the world. And so in many respects, you know, the cities are black, dark at night, children can't study. This a Confucian culture, where education is extremely highly valued. There's no electricity for the hospitals, and it's really a disastrous situation. And so one of the most urgent things to do, in a development strategy, as against an aid strategy, is to get some electric power in where it's most needed. This means you don't solve the whole problem. That's not do-able in the short-term. But you start where it's most needed and work up.

I'd like to conclude there with a final comment, which is that the essence of development work, of technical assistance and development work, which we are moving into - short of war, I think it's inevitable that we would go in that direction, for all the reasons of donor fatigue that our earlier speaker was explaining. The essence of that is access. You have to work with people shoulder-to-shoulder. You can't do it - the learning on the job, and the learning by doing that is the essence of development work in a cooperative aid relationship can't be done until you have a very good rational to get the access which is denied to food aid programs. That's been our experience, that's been the experience of the other European, Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, Russian, Austrian, Canadian NGOs working on the ground in North Korea. Because you do get the access. I should add that the joint-recovery teams of the U.S. Military have access in some of the provinces that the World Food Program is denied. So we shouldn't just make the mistake of thinking that we're denied access to those provinces because of their gulags, which is the story you hear in Washington. It's not that simple. Provincial access in North Korea has much more to do with the infrastructure of the counterpart affiliate than it has to do with denied zones.

So the energy situation is dire; it's interrelated with all the other crucial problems; it probably constitutes about a third of the total problem; and it should be tackled, as I said earlier, quickly, incrementally, small-scale, fast, cheap, bottom-up, labor intensive, end-use, efficiency-increasing ways to bring some power and some heat to these desperate people, not years down the line, but weeks, months, six months down the line. And that is entirely do-able in North Korea.

Thank you very much. I'd like to thank all the panelists for their very illuminative, if somewhat (understandably) depressing comments, and thank you all for coming.