North Korea: Nuclear Ambition, Power Shortage

In North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang, pictured above last year on May Day, light radiates from Juche Tower, the monument built to commemorate the 70th birthday of ruler Kim Il Sung in 1982. But that power did not flow to the nation’s people. Among the deprivations that marked the nuclear-armed era of Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il,  energy was arguably the most fundamental shortage. It was certainly one that profoundly shaped the repeated failed negotiations to bring North Korea back into the community of nations.

By now, the night satellite image of the peninsula is well-known, showing Kim’s state as a shadow against the bright economic vigor of neighboring South Korea. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used it as an illustration in 2002 to tie Kim’s choice to pursue nuclear weaponry to a host of choices he had made to the detriment of his people: “North Korea is dark,” he said.

The best estimates on the extent of that darkness today come from the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, which has worked for years on the energy situation in North Korea.  The latest figures, which soon will be published as an update to a study Nautilus did in 2007 (pdf), show that North Korea currently is consuming about 10.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, says Nautilus senior associate David von Hippel.  That’s less than the electricity used each year by the city of Washington, D.C.  (about 12 billion kilowatt-hours) spread thinly across a country that has almost 40 times as many people as the U.S. capital.

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Photo courtesy Nautilus Institute

The Nautilus staff shared another image that reveals perhaps even more about the energy situation under Kim Jong Il than the long-distance satellite view: A photo of a North Korean tractor with a coal gasifier rigged to the back. Like isolated regimes of the past—Germany in the 1930s and South Africa under apartheid—North Korea is turning to coal to fuel engines that in  rest of the world run on oil or natural gas. In North Korea, coal was  pulverized and gasified, then converted into a fertilizer—a highly inefficient way to make a nutrient mix for crops. But the regime had no access to natural gas that is the common feedstock for fertilizer.

To fuel the regime, North Korea relied on dirty, wasteful, environmentally devastating forms of energy.  More than half of the nation’s energy comes from coal. Its hydropower capacity, once large, now provides a small slice of the nation’s energy, highly dependent on seasonal river flows. Nautilus’ analysis of the country says there was probably major damage to these facilities in mid-1990s flooding due to soil erosion. As in many energy-short countries, deforestation is rampant as people burn wood, twigs and other biomass for fuel.  “There is really no way for North Korea to bootstrap itself out of the huge economic hole in which it has found itself,” says Peter Hayes, Nautilus executive director.

Hayes argues that Kim’s death may provide an opportunity to engage with North Korea with both humanitarian and energy assistance, although probably the opening will be after 2012, and what is sure to be an extended period of mourning for Kim, and the long-planned celebration to mark the 100th birthday of patriarch Kim Il Sung.

The energy steps that probably make the most sense for North Korea involve connections with its neighbors, by natural gas pipeline and electric grid.

But North Korea long saw nuclear power as its future; Hayes points out that this dates back to 1985, when it signed a deal with Moscow to build it a reactor that was meant to tackle its energy needs. Those plans fell apart after the breakup of the Soviet Union, setting North Korea on the path of conflict it has followed since, determined to build its own nuclear capacity, for both energy and weapons.

North Korea’s electric grid is ill-equipped, and likely would need massive upgrades to handle the energy from a nuclear power plant, experts agree. (The grid is so decrepit that probably one-quarter of the power generated is lost in transmission, von Hippel said.) And since the 1990s, Kim insisted on nuclear energy assistance from the West, especially the United States, as a cornerstone for any international negotiations. But the progress at the end of the Clinton administration fell apart at the start of the Bush administration.

Not only does North Korea now have nuclear arms, it revealed last year that it is building a uranium enrichment plant to produce fuel for a new nuclear power plant—a light-water reactor—now under construction north of Pyongyang. The catch is that facility also can enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. And in turn, the new power reactor will also provide a means for North Korea to produce plutonium to arm bombs.

Hayes argues that a path for engagement, in addition to immediate assistance (he suggests shipments of liquefied natural gas, via South Korea), would be for outside nations to assist North Korea in building a safe, small nuclear power reactor, while bringing North Korea into an international enrichment consortium in order to lead it to reveal the sum total of its enrichment program.

But in the short term, the concern of outside nations will surely be on whether Kim’s hand-picked successor, his son Kim Jong Un, is fully in control of the military state, points out Mark Hibbs, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hibbs says he is “fairly pessimistic,” stressing that last year’s revelation of a uranium enrichment plant had been highly destabilizing; previously, the six nations that had tried to negotiate engagement with North Korea had been focused only on the plutonium threat.

As for energy, Hibbs points out how little sense nuclear makes for North Korea: “The problem with nuclear power in this equation is that North Korea is no different than any other country—it cannot go forward unless there is a very predictable and favorable political environment.” It’s been difficult enough to persuade investors to support financing of nuclear power in western countries, he notes.

But North Korea appears determined to continue on its nuclear path, says Philip Yun, executive director of the nonproliferation group, the Ploughshares Fund, a former diplomat who was part of the U.S. delegation that accompanied  Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000. Yun says he has concerns over the safety of the nuclear reactor that is now being built, and the short cuts the regime is likely to be taking. But he says that the outside world should not doubt that the power plant will be built.  “They do what they say they are going to do,” Yun says. “We have a tendency to dismiss them, as when they said they were going to do missile tests. They said they are going to build a light-water reactor. And I have no doubt they will build it.”