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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

North Korea Bans Imports of Chinese Pork on Fears of African Swine Fever Epidemic

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source

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chinese pork, african swine fever
The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in. Wikimedia Commons

North Korean authorities have banned imports of Chinese pork as an African swine fever (ASF) epidemic rages north of the Yalu River border between the two countries.

According to the latest update from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China has seen 138 ASF outbreaks since August 2018 and more than a million pigs have been culled since the initial outbreak in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.

North Korea’s ministry of agriculture confirmed the country’s first ASF outbreak in Chagang province on May 23 and South Korea’s ministry of unification has proposed discussions on how the two Koreas can work together to stop the further spread of the disease.

But RFA sources in North Korea say Chinese pork is still being sold in local markets. “A few days ago I heard from a customs official that North Korea has completely blocked all imports of pork and beef from China to prevent the spread of African swine fever,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on June 2.

chinese pork, african swine fever
Pigs stand in a barn at a pig farm in Jiangjiaqiao village in northern China’s Hebei province on May 8, 2019. Pork lovers worldwide are wincing at prices that have jumped by up to 40 percent as China’s struggle to stamp out African swine fever in its vast pig herds sends shockwaves through global meat markets. RFA

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. “I heard that in some areas, including Pyongyang and Sinuiju, they are trying to control pork sales, but no action has been taken yet in North Hamgyong,” said the source. The source said that the ban is quite rare, especially since diseases among livestock are common during this part of the year.

“There have been infectious swine diseases in the past, but they never banned the import of pork from China. At this time of year, we are usually hit with infectious swine diseases and many pigs are culled, but none of the residents bury the dead pigs,” the source said. The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in.

“The price of pork is between 14 and 15 Chinese Yuan (slightly more than $2) per kilogram, which is the same as before the authorities banned Chinese pork. Even though customs authorities are blocking pork imports from China, there is so much pork being smuggled in,” the source said. Another source, also from North Hamgyong, said the ban is strange, given that North Korean customs officials generally follow the lead of their Chinese counterparts.

“On the first of the month, pork that was to be brought in from China was quarantined at North Korean customs and sent back. It is unusual for our customs office to block this pork shipment because it didn’t have any problem going through Chinese customs,” said the second source.

“That [particular] pork shipment was to be brought in by a Chinese citizen of Korean descent who is a restaurant owner in Rason,” the second source said. “He thought there would be no problem going through customs because he regularly brings in pork from China. But the Wonjong customs office did not let it pass through on orders from the Central Committee,” the second source said.

chinese pork, african swine fever
“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. Wikimedia Commons

The second source said the restaurant owner was surprised his shipment was held back. “He has had no problem bringing in pork from China for several years now. Even when swine fever [started] spreading in China, he kept bringing it in. It’s the first time he has been stopped and he’s totally bewildered,” the second source said.

The second source said that the price of pork remains stable despite the ban, and no cases of ASF have been reported in Rason. Even so, residents have become fearful of the disease.

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“[They think] African swine fever is highly contagious and has a fatality rate of 100%, but Chinese pork is still being sold at the local markets and no restrictions have been announced,” said the second source. According to a USDA fact sheet, ASF is deadly only to domestic and feral pigs and does not affect humans. People can, however, spread the virus by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected livestock.

According to a source in South Pyongan province, North Korea has not culled pigs in any of its state-run farms where an ASF outbreak has occurred. The pigs instead were supplied to sausage factories at low cost. This has caused a flood of sausages to enter the market, cutting the price of sausage in half. (RFA)

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.