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North Korea Explores Home-Grown, Sanctions-Proof Energy

The North’s interest in tidal energy also reflects a practical desire to exploit existing resources.

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North Korea
North Korean men walk with the West Sea Barrage in the background in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. VOA

Power-strapped North Korea is exploring two ambitious alternative energy sources, tidal power and coal-based synthetic fuels, that could greatly improve living standards and reduce its reliance on oil imports and vulnerability to sanctions.

Finding a lasting energy source that isn’t vulnerable to sanctions has long been a priority for North Korean officials. Leader Kim Jong Un used his New Year’s address last month to call on the country to “radically increase the production of electricity” and singled out the coal-mining industry as a “primary front in developing the self-supporting economy.” For the longer-term, he stressed the importance of atomic, wind and tidal power.

Since further development of atomic energy is unlikely anytime soon, the power-scarce country is developing technology to “gasify” coal into substitute motor fuels. It also is looking into using huge sea barriers with electricity-generating turbines to harness the power of the ocean’s tides.

FILE - Young joggers pass by as smoke billows from the stack of the Pyongyang Power Plant in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 15, 2018.
Young joggers pass by as smoke billows from the stack of the Pyongyang Power Plant in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 15, 2018. VOA
Coal and hydropower

Coal and hydropower are North Korea’s main energy resources. The North imports nearly all of its oil and petroleum products from China. Solar panels are visible just about everywhere, from urban balconies to rural farm buildings and military installations. Wind remains a very minor energy source.

The North’s renewed focus on oil alternatives underscores what some foreign observers believe are two of its long-term best bets.

Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, tried to get international support for developing nuclear power in the 1990s before the North ultimately opted instead for nuclear weapons. That brought some of the most intense sanctions ever applied by the United Nations against the country, making its energy situation even more precarious.

But coal is something North Korea has in abundance.

It’s used to supply thermal power plants and factories, to heat homes and to make fertilizer and even a kind of cloth, called Vinylon. Slow-running, smoke-belching trucks that use a gasification process with firewood are common in the North Korean countryside. Coal isn’t generally seen as a good oil-product substitute because converting it to a liquid form is inefficient and expensive — coal gasification was last used on a large scale in Nazi Germany to keep its cars and trucks moving.

Efforts paying off

Given North Korea’s limited options, it’s a technology that appears to be paying off.

The output from one gasifier unit reportedly destined for the North Sunchon Chemical Plant, north of Pyongyang, could yield synthetic fuel amounting to about 10 percent of the North’s recent petroleum supply, according to a recent study for the Nautilus Institute by David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, two of the foremost experts on the issue. The study cited as one of its sources a Wall Street Journal report from December that tracked the unit to a Chinese exporter.

The facility is believed to be a center of “C-1” technology, which uses coal to make a kind of gas used to produce synthetic fuels, industrial chemicals and fertilizers.

Now that China has reduced its coal imports from the North in line with the sanctions, there’s more available for gasification.

“The project appears to provide a significant benefit to the DPRK, in terms of supplying fuels to compensate for petroleum product imports that run afoul of United Nations Security Council sanctions passed in the last two years, although the project will not completely replace all lost imports on its own,” they wrote in the report.

DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A North Korean man looks out to the sea as he stands on the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea's coast is a rich tidal power resource, one European official said.
A North Korean man looks out to the sea as he stands on the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea’s coast is a rich tidal power resource, one European official said. VOA

Power from the tides

The North’s interest in tidal energy also reflects a practical desire to exploit existing resources.

Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament with extensive experience with the North, said he has had several discussions with North Korean officials regarding tidal power and even helped arrange a study tour to a facility in the UK a decade ago. He said they have tried to invite experts to the North.

The country is perfectly situated for tidal power.

“The bulk of the Korean Peninsula’s west coast is a rich tidal power resource,” Ford said in a telephone interview with The AP. “There are some detailed studies of the potential in South Korea and the same resources are there to be exploited north of the Demilitarized Zone.”

The world’s largest functioning tidal power plant is near the South Korean city of Ansan. It opened in 2011 and produces about enough power to support a city of 500,000.

Kim Jong Un has shown a strong penchant for mobilizing his million-man military on big projects. And the North has shown it can build something like a tidal power plant.

A guide stands next to a model of the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea is exploring alternative energy sources.
A guide stands next to a model of the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea is exploring alternative energy sources.VOA

One of North Korea’s proudest accomplishments is the gigantic West Sea Barrage, which was completed in 1986 at a cost of $4 billion. The huge seawall near the city of Nampo, a port about an hour’s drive from the capital, crosses the mouth of the Taedong River and helps control flooding and reduce the amount of salt that seeps in from the ocean, increasing the amount and quality of arable land.

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“The attraction is that, apart from the turbines, it is all a gigantic earth-moving project,” Ford said. “That’s ideal for the Korean People’s Army skillset.” (VOA)

Next Story

After Failed Hanoi Summit, U.S. Imposes First North Korea-Linked Sanctions

Trump and Kim have held two summits — the first in Singapore last June and the second in Hanoi this February. Trump has not ruled out a third such meeting.

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South Korea
Protesters march toward the U.S. Embassy during a rally supporting the U.S. policy to put steady pressure on North Korea, in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 3, 2018. VOA

With negotiations at an impasse, Washington has imposed additional sanctions on those assisting Pyongyang — the first such action since February’s failed summit in Hanoi between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“This is not really about intensification of pressure,” a senior U.S. administration official said. “This is about maintaining pressure as defined by the international community.”

FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2019, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaks at a news conference in Hanoi, following talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump said he walked away from his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because Kim demanded the U.S. lift all of its sanctions.
In this Feb. 28, 2019, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaks at a news conference in Hanoi, following talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump said he walked away from his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because Kim demanded the U.S. lift all of its sanctions. VOA

Thursday’s sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department on two China-based shipping companies were the latest evidence of some “leakage” in the enforcement of sanctions by Beijing, but U.S. officials said that overall, China was abiding by the U.N. resolutions slapped on North Korea for its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

Washington wants Pyongyang to surrender its entire nuclear arsenal and other mass-destruction weapons before being granted any relief from sanctions. The North Koreans insist on sanctions relief before halting production of fissile materials.

“Insisting on unilateral North Korean disarmament upfront is pushing on the wrong door. We should be pushing to first slow the program, then cap it, and ultimately keep rollback and disarmament the long-term goal,” said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But every month that passes without a grand deal is one in which North Korea’s nuclear program continues to grow larger — increasing the risk of its own use and proliferation to other countries — and the chances of a deal grow smaller.”

 

FILE - In this undated image from video distributed Jan. 1, 2019, by North Korean broadcaster KRT, leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech in North Korea.
In this undated image from video distributed Jan. 1, 2019, by North Korean broadcaster KRT, leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech in North Korea. VOA

Analysts also worry Kim could grow impatient, turn away from diplomacy with Trump and look to China to provide sanctions relief that North Korea desperately needs.

“I’m not sure we can be confident that Beijing will uphold enforcement after Trump so abruptly walked away from negotiations with North Korea,” said Jean Lee, who directs the center for Korean history and public policy at the Wilson Center, a global policy research group in Washington. “I do hope North Korea sticks to negotiation and does not resort to provocation. If Pyongyang doesn’t get the response it craves and needs from Washington, North Korea may turn back to a tried and tested strategy: to get Trump, and the world’s attention, with another illicit missile launch or test.”

U.S. officials on Thursday, speaking to reporters on condition of not being named, expressed patience and confidence with their stance toward North Korea.

Patience

“What they’re facing now is unprecedented,” said one U.S. official of the sanctions on North Korea. “We’ll give it some time.”

Lee, currently in Seoul, told VOA she found it “interesting that we’re back to a form of strategic patience. There was high hope, especially here in Seoul, that Trump’s impatience and unpredictability would lead to fast movement on North Korea. But the Trump administration is finding that it’s much tougher than the president may have thought of simply bullying Kim into acquiescence.”

A prolonged lull in talks “could become risky, and maintaining maximalist positions will not be sustainable,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a national security research group in Washington.

FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2018, photo, a North Korean woman walks outside Bugsae Shop, also known as the "Singapore Shop," in Pyongyang. Business is booming at such shops, which sell everything from Ukrainian vodka to brand-name knock-offs from China. The stores stock many of the very things U.N. sanctions banning trade in luxury goods are intended to block.
In this Dec. 21, 2018, photo, a North Korean woman walks outside Bugsae Shop, also known as the “Singapore Shop,” in Pyongyang. Business is booming at such shops, which sell everything from Ukrainian vodka to brand-name knock-offs from China. The stores stock many of the very things U.N. sanctions banning trade in luxury goods are intended to block. VOA

“They need to negotiate a denuclearization-peace road map soon and preferably an interim agreement on fissile materials. Rapid and complete denuclearization is not realistic. Denuclearization will have to occur in stages but in accordance with an agreed road map on how this all ends,” Kim told VOA.

The current primary point of pressure on Pyongyang by the international community is on entities, including their ships, involved with illicitly exporting North Korean goods, such as coal, and taking products — especially petroleum — into the impoverished country in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Unless North Korea denuclearizes, “we’re going to maintain that pressure,” a senior U.S official said.

Daily monitoring

A coalition of countries — using their vessels, aircraft and classified intelligence means — are daily watching the movement of ships involved in the illegal trade.

North Korea and those helping it are trying to obscure identities of ships and cargo by disabling or manipulating systems that identify the vessels for safety and navigation, physically altering vessel identifications and making ship-to-ship transfers to avoid ports, according to a sanctions advisory jointly issued Thursday by the U.S. Treasury and State departments and the Coast Guard.

Neither the United States nor any other country has moved to interdict the offending ships.

FILE - This photo released by Japan's Ministry of Defense shows what it says is the North Korean-flagged tanker Yu Jong 2, left, and the Min Ning De You 078 lying alongside in the East China Sea, Feb. 16, 2018.
This photo released by Japan’s Ministry of Defense shows what it says is the North Korean-flagged tanker Yu Jong 2, left, and the Min Ning De You 078 lying alongside in the East China Sea, Feb. 16, 2018. VOA

“I don’t want to talk about potential steps we may or may not take,” replied a senior administration official when asked by VOA whether there was discussion here about using the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard in international waters to take such action.

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Trump and Kim have held two summits — the first in Singapore last June and the second in Hanoi this February. Trump has not ruled out a third such meeting.

“The door is wide open to continuing the dialogue with North Korea. The president wants to see progress at the working level, and he’s engaged as well,” a senior administration official said. (VOA)