To include this review as a warning or danger would be to exaggerate the impact on a visitor. The oft times lacking and erratic power supply in North Korea is more something you should be aware of and indeed I invite you to turn it to your advantage and enjoy the darkness in North Korea.
Without doubt the most famous and best-recognised North Korean photographic images are not those taken in North Korea, but rather those taken of North Korea, from space and at night.
My lead image, from 2012, is a composite one put together by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geophysical Data Center (that’s a bit of a mouthful!) from data collected by the US Air Force Weather Agency. The picture below was taken from the International Space Station in January 2014. Not a lot of change!
Both pictures bluntly reminds us that North Korea is an impoverished country and of its isolation from the rest of the world. It need not be like this.
The fact that these satellite pictures are used to portray North Korea in a poor light (pardon the pun) is well known within the country and in response to this external negativity the state-run newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, in an editorial once assured readers that the country is not weakened by its lack of electricity and that ‘the essence of [North Korean] society is not on flashy lights’.
In observing the contrast in the night-time illumination of North and South Korea it is sobering to recall that in 1944 85% of the power requirements of the total Korean peninsula were produced in the northern part of the then unified country, albeit under Japanese occupation and rule. In the late 1940s, post liberation from Japan and the establishment of North and South Korea by the WWII victors, Pyongyang’s decision to stop supplying the South with electricity was a major blow to the then-struggling South Korean economy. While rather ironic now, it was perfectly understandable in 1948 that a depiction of a large hydro-electric power plant was chosen to dominate the coat of arms of the newly established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. By the early 1940s the majority of the country’s power was derived from powerful hydro-electric plants (built by Japanese imperialists!) with the Sup’ung plant on the border with China being the largest – and probably the one subsequently depicted on the coat-of-arms. While hydro-electric power remains the main source of power within the country (around 73%) the use of coal generated power has increased significantly. Sadly, while the plant to produce sufficient power was in place and was added to post the establishment of North Korea it has suffered decades of overuse and poor maintenance resulting in severe shortages and an under supply. Things became significantly worse with the exodus of Soviet support in the late 1990s – though power shortages began in the 1970s.
While there are a number of newer and better run power stations along the northern border with China most of these are joint ventures with Chinese companies and notwithstanding the dire power needs within North Korea an increasing amount of power produced in these plants is sold to China, electricity being one of the very few things that can be imported from North Korea without breaching sanctions. This gives the country hard currency for other priority needs. This rather perverse situation is a direct consequence of sanctions imposed on the country but given the priorities in place for allocating scarce electricity within the country, suffice to say that the Leadership, the elite and the military do not go without.
Despite its development of nuclear weapons North Korea, unlike the South, does not produce any nuclear power.
I don’t know what time of the night the satellite pictures above were taken. This is often seen as relevant as if taken after 9-10pm the majority of public lighting would have been switched off for the night. Even if this was the case, had they been taken at 8pm they would only have differed marginally as, in reality, there are not that many lights to switch off an hour or two later. Leaving aside this minor issue, the pictures are certainly indicative of how little electricity North Korea has rather than its inability to manufacture and install lights.
The shortage of electricity, leading to restricted hours of availability, and unscheduled power outages were acknowledged by our guides. While the guides can do a very good job of telling you black is white, even the most non-observant tourist, with sight, can work out for themselves if it is dark or not at night. In apologising for the fact that you may encounter restricted hours and or power outages, especially outside Pyongyang, our guide hastened to add that blame for this lay fairly and squarely with the United States and its initiated embargoes which made it difficult for North Korea to import fuel and the equipment necessary to produce electricity. In the same manner the US is blamed for the lack of vehicles on the roads.
In relative terms Pyongyang is bathed in light – it’s the larger white blob on the earlier images – but even in Pyongyang power restrictions, and to a slightly lesser degree outages, occur on a regular basis. While it looks bright, despite a population of 3.26 million (2008) the city’s light emission is still only equivalent to that of much smaller towns in South Korea. In the 2014 picture the small (though significantly larger than in 2012) blob of light on the east coast is Wonsan, a city singled out for massive tourist development by Kim Jong-un. To date a major airport has been built (no regular flights) and work is underway on a plethora of high-end accommodations and other amenities. Given its relatively northern latitude I fear it may not attract the hordes of sun-seekers, certainly not year-round, that the Leader may be envisaging. Of course, his intention may be streets of casinos and direct flights to China!
While there is no doubt electricity is in short supply I found the number of outages in 2018 to have been significantly less than in 2014. In 2014 we encountered about half a dozen outages of a few minutes duration in 9-10 days, typically as soon as we set down to eat dinner! In 2018 we encountered only two or three short outages in 21 days which included significantly more travel out of Pyongyang than in 2014. We had no outages in our Pyongyang hotels – the Sosan and the Yanggakdo – which have their own generators.
Another place where you will notice the nationwide shortage of power and laudable attempts to save it (though no-one wastes power anywhere in the DPRK) is in museums. As tourists – local and foreign – are guided around museums in groups you will notice that prior to you entering a room the lights will be switched on and that after you leave a room the lights will be switched off. Be warned though that while the turning on and off of lights still occurs this frugality does not extend to the air-conditioning in the Leader’s Mausoleum and a handful of the major museums and gift repositories. These are maintained at almost arctic temperatures – to preserve the exhibits. Dress accordingly.
When it comes to real estate, North Korea must be one of the few countries in the world where penthouses and higher level apartments are less favoured than lower lever units. This is because lifts are frequently non-operational and the ability to pump water up to higher levels is hampered, due to lack of power. I am not sure if these deficiencies exist in recent developments such as Mirae (“Future”) Scientists Street, completed in 2015, or not.
In my 2014 review I noted the fact that the street lighting, neon lights, lit up advertising hoardings, bright security lights, etc that we are all so familiar with elsewhere are pretty much non-existent throughout North Korea. This is still broadly the case though in Pyongyang and some country areas the locals have taken a liking to coloured fluorescent tubes and attached them to shops and other buildings. Also, there is a growing (but still very small) utilisation of LED lights for decorative purposes. New developments within Pyongyang, and there are many of them such as Mirae (“Future”) Scientists Street referred to above, are now brightly lit up – during the hours when electricity is available.
One thing worth noting though is that when the lights go out generally, this does not apply to the statues and monuments of the Leaders, mosaics and pictures portraying them, propaganda displays and other important national statues and monuments such as the Juche Tower in Pyongyang. These stay illuminated throughout the night. That said, on my last night in Pyongyang I awoke early to take some sunrise shots from my room in the Yanggakdo Hotel and noticed that the Juche Tower lights went off a little before sunrise. Note the rather more subdued lighting in the apartment block behind the propaganda displays pictured below.
Many monuments, statues and murals are now illuminated via power captured during the day using solar panels.
Solar panels, which were extremely rare in 2014, have mushroomed and can be seen everywhere – not just in Pyongyang but throughout the country as people have acquired them to cope with power restrictions and outages. The panels can be seen on the balconies of apartment blocks all over the place and while of practical value to residents, from a tourist perspective they are not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the pots of colourful flowers which they have often replaced!
The relatively cheap, Chinese produced, panels are small and I doubt if they would provide power for much more than a television and a light or two. These panels have, to a large degree, replaced the small domestic generators people were installing in the early 2000s. The generators suffered from the fact that getting fuel to run them was not always easy and that they were not ‘neighbour’ friendly – though generally they were run during the day to charge batteries for night-time use.
Leaving aside and in no way taking from the dire power supply situation which does exist, I enjoyed the lower level of light in North Korea and it reminded me of growing up in country Northern Ireland where the only outside lights we saw at night were the stars and the flicker of town lights in the distance. While not advocating that we cut our electricity consumption by 90% plus, a visit to North Korea certainly made me think about how much electricity, and power generally, is needlessly consumed in other countries. The one thing that does take a little getting used to, particularly for city dwellers, is driving or being in the countryside at night time in pitch darkness or under the moonlight with artificial lights nowhere to be seen – an eeriness further amplified by the dearth of motor vehicles on the roads.
To answer my lead question. Yes, I advise that you bring a torch on your visit to North Korea but based on personal experience power outages were not as common as I had anticipated and it was fun cooking petrol baked clams by bus light and barbequing pine mushrooms by torchlight but more about those activities in my Nampo and Mt Chilbo reviews.
From another important tourist perspective, there was certainly ample opportunity to recharge camera batteries and the like though I always carry an extra battery or charge pack anyway and advise that you do likewise.
My next North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Review –HERE