As he turns his attention to building North Korea’s economy, Kim Jong Un’s Achilles heel is his country’s power grid. The grid is leaky, archaic and badly needing repairs. What electricity there is is unevenly distributed. Flashlights are commonplace on the streets or in otherwise darkened apartments. In rural villages, even that often fades to black.
The whole nation of 25 million people uses about the same amount of electricity each year as Washington alone. It uses as much crude oil in a year as the U.S. consumes in just 12 hours. While North Korea has about half the population of South Korea, the South’s electricity consumption in 2014 was about 40 times bigger.
Hydroelectricity, which is subject to seasonal swings, provides about half of the fuel supplied to the North Korean national energy grid. Coal accounts for the other half. Years of intensive sanctions have severely impacted North Korea’s supply of fossil fuels from the outside world, and spurred the country to cobble together a smorgasbord of energy resources.
North Korea must import about 3 million to 4 million barrels of crude oil each year to sustain its economy. Under U.N. sanctions imposed late last year, North Korea can import a maximum 500,000 barrels of refined oil products along with 4 million barrels of crude oil per year.
Along with its Chinese connection, the North has been supplied by Russian tankers. It has found willing suppliers in the Middle East, or on the open market. Since the imposition of the import cap, Pyongyang has been implicated in increasingly sophisticated schemes to augment its supplies with hard-to-track transfers of oil by tankers at sea. Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, claimed the amount of illegally transferred oil was 160 percent of the annual 500,000 barrel cap.
David von Hippel and Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute, who have been following North Korea’s energy issue for years, found that imports of diesel- and gasoline-powered generators, coupled with solar panels that are already ubiquitous in the North, are creating an energy system increasingly independent of the national power grid.
Still, keeping the power on often can be an elaborate routine. Solar panels, the cheapest option, can keep a room lit, a mobile phone working and maybe a TV or another appliance going. When electricity from the grid is actually flowing, it can be used to charge batteries before the next blackout hits. Those with a little more clout or money use diesel- or gas-powered generators that can power anything from a restaurant to an apartment block.