TOKYO — Light showers are forecast for Pyongyang over the next few days, but the torrential downpours that drench northeast Asia this time each year have not yet reached North Korea. And even when the rains arrive, they will almost certainly not be enough to fill the reservoirs in the hydropower-dependent country, which is suffering from severe electricity shortages.
This is creating major problems in North Korea, a country already struggling after decades of economic mismanagement, and it could jeopardize the slight improvements seen in the past couple of years.
Now, after a dry 2014 followed by an unusually dry winter and a dearth of rainfall over the spring, North Korea is facing a devastating drought and severe power shortages. More than 60 percent of its electricity comes from hydropower, but the rivers and dams are running low.
“There is no doubt that there is a serious water shortage in this country, which obviously also affects electricity generation,” said one resident of Pyongyang. The resident and several others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering authorities, who do not appreciate negative publicity.
“The power situation is pretty bad now, actually. There are definitely major power issues,” added another person who had just returned from visiting North Korea, including areas outside the showcase capital. “There was hardly a place we went that was not experiencing electricity issues.”
Electricity is crucial for economic growth, especially in the mines and factories that have been powering some of the recent improvements. Electricity is also crucial for Kim Jong Un’s stated “byungjin” policy — the idea that North Korea can simultaneously develop its economy and nuclear weapons.
The United States’ current approach toward North Korea is founded on a “counter-byungjin” policy, betting that the country’s economy will face enough challenges that the regime will be forced to negotiate the end of its nuclear program.
That has not happened yet. But the current water shortages are certainly inflicting some pain on North Korea.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency last week reported that the country had been hit by “the worst drought in 100 years,” causing “great damage” to its agricultural sector and to water-intensive rice fields in particular.
Many analysts tend to discount such reports from Pyongyang, viewing them as exaggerations and a way for the regime to get additional donations from the international community, although aid agencies say the prospect of severe food shortages this year is very real.
But there is no doubt that at least part of the KCNA statement was entirely accurate: “Water level of reservoirs stands at the lowest, while rivers and streams [are] getting dry.”
“International organizations point to the fact that last year also was very dry and that in all probability reserves were overused in order to cope and save harvests,” a Pyongyang resident said. “That means that North Korea has entered this year with practically no reserves. Apparently it will take years, not months, of normal precipitation in order to restore normal levels in the reservoirs.”
Foreigners who live in Pyongyang and recent visitors to North Korea report that power cuts are more prevalent than usual, hitting the capital and even the hotels where foreigners stay, including the landmark Koryo in the center of Pyongyang.
“Many of the rivers are at very low water levels, with exposed riverbeds in some parts,” said another regular visitor.
Randall Ireson, an expert on North Korean agriculture, wrote in an online publication that although North Korea had been experiencing sharply lower rainfall than average, “if the rains of the last few days presage the arrival of the monsoon, then all may turn out fine. If there’s no change in the next couple of weeks, then we should start to worry.”
In a commentary on North Korea’s drought claims for 38 North, a Web site related to North Korea, he added:
“Abnormal weather in [North Korea] is always of concern, given the very fragile nature of the agricultural recovery that has been progressing for the last several years.”
Even at the best of times, North Korea’s electricity situation is dismal. Much of the country’s energy infrastructure was built by its founding patron, the Soviet Union, and has been decaying at least since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago.
Very little data is available about North Korea’s energy supply, but U.S. Energy Information Administration figures suggest that North Korea produced almost 19 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available. That compares with 500 billion kilowatt hours in South Korea.
“Our understanding is that in the big power plants, not all of the boilers are working,” said David von Hippel, an expert on North Korea’s energy sector at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.
Furthermore, the substations through which power is routed are also deteriorating, and the transmission distribution grid is almost nonexistent.
“Some of the transformers and the substations are not working well and are very hard for the North Koreans to maintain because of lack of spare parts and substation designs that are 40 years out of date or more,” von Hippel said.
The chronic power shortages have had a devastating impact on the industrial sector — factories have ground to a halt and industrial equipment has been degraded — and on the lives of ordinary people. In recent decades, North Koreans have gathered firewood for cooking wherever they could find it — leading to widespread deforestation and increasing the chances of devastating flooding when the rains do come.
“Because of the failure of the central authorities to adequately supply electricity, people are taking the initiative on their own to supply their electricity needs in their own homes and factories,” said Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and a contributor to its 38 North Web site.
Solar panels are popular imports in North Korea these days. They sell for as little as $75 in Dandong, the Chinese border city, and can power a television and some lights. They can be seen on apartment balconies around Pyongyang, as well as further afield.
North Korea has recently switched to diesel trains reserved for wartime use because it does not have the power to run electric locomotives, Radio Free Asia has reported. A journey that was taking 10 days — because trains ground to a halt when the power failed — now takes two days with diesel trains, the radio station reported, citing local sources.
Electricity shortages mean residents reportedly don’t want to live above the 20th floor of the new high-rise apartment towers in Pyongyang — although 20 flights is still a lot of stairs to climb.
Kim acknowledged the energy problems in his New Year’s address, saying North Korea should be “waging a campaign to economize on electricity to the maximum, while taking realistic measures to resolve the electricity problem in a prospective way.”
North Korea has been trying to remedy the problems by building new coal and hydropower plants, such as the Huichon station north of Pyongyang. At least one other hydrostation is reported to be under construction, with an apparent deadline of October, the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party.
“North Korea is continuing to develop energy sources,” Melvin said. “They’re just not coming along very well, and the transmission network is still pretty horrible.”
But just as hydropower plants suffer during drought, coal-fired power plants are having trouble because there’s not enough power to get the raw material out of the mines.
North Korea’s energy woes have created opportunities for the outside world to engage the isolated regime, and for several decades, the United States has been seeking to strike deals giving energy aid to North Korea in return for the Kim regime giving up its nuclear program.
But under Kim, who took over after his father’s death in late 2011, North Korea has shown no interest in any nuclear negotiations and has instead been seeking acceptance as a nuclear state.
Some analysts are hoping that the current water shortages and resulting energy woes might prompt North Korea to reconsider that stance.
“We’ve hosted many North Korean delegations over the years, and they’re always very interested in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” von Hippel said. “Those are all areas that should be fairly safe in terms of engagement.”