On a popular image showing the Earth at night, there is an expanse appearing to be an open sea or icy desert. This is North Korea: a dark spot between the bright city lights of Japan, China, and the Republic of Korea. It is in this darkness that a second test of a nuclear weapon was recently carried out, causing world-wide outrage.

The darkness is also the launching site of long-range missiles claiming to carry satellites, but suspected to be the vehicles that would propel nuclear bombs to targets as close as Japan and as far as the United States.

Surprisingly, what is now a dark gap on the charts was once upon a time one of the most advanced nations in Asia in terms of the production of modern energy. Endowed with abundant coal and hydropower resources, the North produced 90% of its electricity at the time of Korea’s partition and hosted – at the time of its commissioning – the largest hydropower plant in Asia, the 600 MW Sui-ho Dam (now the Sup’ung Dam), which exported power to China. By the 1980s, North Korea boasted one of the most developed power grids in Asia and a generating capacity of 5.4 GW, producing about 25 billion kWh of power per year. Plans called for 100 billion kWh by 1990.
This apparent early success, however, masked two major structural weaknesses that soon became manifest: a lack of access to petroleum and a lack of access to technology.

North Korea is a good example of a country that has plentiful primary energy resources, but not the right tools that transform these resources into the kinds of energy that a modern economy needs. Since it has abundant coal, one would think it would also have enough electricity. In fact, the Pukchang plant, completed in 1984 and boasting 1,600 MW of installed capacity (i.e. about 50% of the thermal plant capacity in North Korea), is a paragon of obsolete technology. The plant was designed in 1960 and its first 100 MW gensets were commissioned in 1971. Identical 100 MW units followed, resulting in a plant that has 16 identical obsolete units, but – as some sources claim – relatively more efficiency than other North Korean plants due to interchangeability of parts and ease of maintenance.

Coal shortages and poor quality of coal contributed to reducing the available capacity at the plant to about 500 MW. The net result is a pattern of coal utilization in North Korea that is reminiscent of the 19th century: unlike elsewhere in the world these days, most of the coal produced in North Korea is not used in power plants, but in industrial applications (boiler rooms and process fuel), as well as in general purpose applications like space heating and cooking.

Now if Pukchang is the paragon of North Korean technology and efficiency in power generation, one wonders what two other large thermal plants might look like. One of them, the 200 MW oil-fired Unggi plant, is hardly in operation at all, as it receives fuel oil from the nearby Unggi refinery, which uses crude petroleum imported from Russia – and in pretty short supply. The other one, the 200 MW Sunbong power plant (a.k.a. “6.16 station”), is diesel-oil fired and based on a 1960s Soviet design. As imports of fuel virtually dried up during the 1990’s due to foreign exchange shortages, the plant all but stopped operating, even though it is the main energy source for major industrial facilities like the Victory Chemical Works (a refinery) and the Kim Chaek steel mill.

Throughout the 1990’s, North Korea has been trying to close the gap between electricity supply and demand by building more large hydropower plants, some of them on the Yalu river with help from China. Additionally, a program for constructing small and medium-sized hydropower plants was put in place. Due to lack of funding and technology, however, progress has been slow and power shortages persist throughout the country. The dilapidated electricity transmission infrastructure just adds to the problem.

But nothing illustrates better the energy grief of North Korea than petroleum. In any developed economy – and in most developing economies – oil and gas provide the bulk of energy. In North Korea, coal supplies some 82% of primary energy, with hydropower adding a further 10% or so. Oil provides just 6%, and natural gas is not used at all. Consequently, the use of petroleum is restricted to applications where it has no substitutes, mainly transportation. It does not come as a surprise that the total number of passenger cars in North Korea is around 25,000, making it dead last in the world with a car ownership ratio of about 1:1,000. “To an ordinary North Korean, … a private car is pretty much what a private jet is to the ordinary American”, say some.

If only it were just a personal inconvenience. A recent study found that energy related to food production and consumption represents about 10% of the total energy consumed in the United States. It takes about 7.3 units of (primarily) fossil energy to produce one unit of food energy in the U.S. food system. In the food supply system, it is petroleum that dominates: it powers the farm equipment, the trucks, the cars, and is used in industrial refrigeration.

In North Korea, the first and foremost sector to suffer from the grave energy shortages that began around 1990 was food production and supply. The crisis started in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, one of the two main providers of oil to North Korea, and the subsequent demand from all other suppliers for the use of cash payments instead of barter. Between 1990 and 1999, oil imports fell 9-fold – and North Korea does not produce any oil. The regime tried to intensify exploration, mostly offshore in the Gulf of Bohai, by extending production sharing contracts to several companies, but the effort produced no discoveries.

Frantic efforts to trade arms for oil in the Middle East failed. By 1994, North Korea had entered into the Agreed Framework with the U.S., trading off its nuclear weapons program for two power generating nuclear reactors and 0.5 million tons of fuel oil. It never worked well, and was abandoned in 2002 over North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons program. In the meantime, famine became widespread in North Korea, with almost all indicators pointing towards a repeat experience. There is simply insufficient oil to fuel the farm equipment, food transportation and storage and distribution system in the country, and the economy does not have the technology to use other modern kinds of energy.

It is certainly ironic that in its pursuit of nuclear energy, an achievement often regarded as an epitome of modernity and progress, the North Korean regime is pushing the country back to the 19th century in both technology and modality of energy use. There is a feedback mechanism between two dark sides of North Korea: energy insecurity contributes to the recklessness by which the North Korean government challenges the international community. But energy insecurity also boosts food insecurity. This is a potentially explosive mixture – not in terms of nuclear bombs, however, but in terms of the political future of the regime in North Korea. One can’t keep his fellow countrymen in darkness and hunger and hope to be a dear leader.

Boyko Nitzov is Dinu Patriciu Fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security and director of the Eurasia Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.