Power supply in North Korea in the age of markets

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A couple of days ago, Daily NK ran an interesting interview with a Pyongsong resident about the conditions of electricity supply in the increasingly market-based North Korean system. Pyongsong, readers may recall, is a crucial logistics hub in North Korea’s market system. People can travel there for trading activities without having to go through the often laborious process of getting a travel permit to Pyongyang, while still reaping the benefits of Pyongyang’s large demand and comparatively wealthy consumers. It sits right on the way to Pyongyang from Sinuiju, North Korea’s main connecting city for trade with China. In 2009, in one of Kim Jong-il’s more blatant anti-market measures, a large wholesale market in Pyongsong was closed down. Several major markets, however, operate in the city and it remains a significant hub for market trade.

The Daily NK interview tells us several interesting things about the way electricity supply functions in North Korea today. Below are a few clips, with added annotation.

The foundation for North Korea’s policy on electricity clearly states that electricity is the driving force behind the people’s economy and it needs to be developed ahead of other sectors so that industry and agriculture can not only exercise their capabilities, but also strengthen national defense.

In theory, electricity should be supplied to state-owned enterprises and other productive units of the central plan according to their needs, basically for free. This creates massively distorted incentives – soft budget constraints, if you will – since enterprises have no reason not to overestimate and over-use electricity. In practice, today, however, with North Korea’s lagging electricity production, in combination with increasing autonomy for state enterprises, it seems that many or most have to pay for whatever electricity they use in the production process.

According to North Korean defectors, some hydroelectric power plants generate power, but most of the-small to-medium sized plants are unable to produce power because the facilities are too old.

It is said that Pyongyang’s power situation has improved but a resident of Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province with whom Daily NK recently met in China said that the power situation in provincial cities remains unsatisfactory.

As is often the case, the situation, like Daily NK points out, is far better in Pyongyang. There, electricity supply appears to have increased as sanctions on coal exports bite, since coal prices have gone down enough for power plants to use more of it.

Daily NK (DNK): Compared to a month or two ago, has the power situation improved?

Pyongsong Resident (PR): Until 2015, electricity was supplied in the evening for two to three hours per day but it was gradually cut off. Since 2017, electricity is only supplied on holidays or when there’s an important news report.

The timing mentioned here is interesting, since there’s little else to suggest that North Korea’s economic situation drastically declined in any significant way specifically in 2015. Rather, it may be a question of increased competition and a higher opportunity cost of supplying residents with electricity essentially free of charge. As enterprises are increasingly free to control their own operations, and source production inputs more freely from institutions such as power plants, the opportunity cost for the state (loosely used here) in providing ordinary residents with electricity increases increases.

[…]

DNK: Can you buy electricity?

PR: If there’s an important occasion like a wedding, people can ask the distribution department and pay them to use electricity. Until a few years ago, you had to have a personal connection or pay a bribe to use electricity, but these days you can pay 50,000 won and they will supply the electricity at the time you want. In some areas, there’s only one power supply line, so if one household buys electricity, other neighbours are happy because they get to use the electricity for free. The authorities are using the national electricity infrastructure to line their own pockets.

A well-known pattern from other parts of the North Korean economy: what starts out as mere corruption soon turns into an institutionalized mechanism in the system, more or less.

DNK: How do party cadres use electricity?

PR: State factory cadres, state security officials and police plug a separate power line into state enterprises and secretly send electricity to their own homes.

Despite the vast changes over the past few years in how the North Korean economy operates, it’s still highly advantageous for several reasons to be a party member and/or state official. Often, not least to gain favors within the market economy.

Since the central government no longer supplies electricity, people are using solar power for television and other leisure activities. About 80-90% of households have already installed their own solar panels. A panel costs US $30 to 80 dollars depending on the size.

The 80–90% figure may not be numerically accurate,  but the vast increase of solar panel use in North Korea over the past few years is well documented, not least by foreign travelers. In any case, though solar panels may not be the most technologically efficient or cheap way to generate power for individual household use, in the case of North Korea, it’s an interesting example of how behavior to cope with shortages lead to more viable, sustainable supply methods, as the state’s electricity supply was usually unreliable and spotty at best for the past few decades.

Full article here:
Pyongsong resident sheds light on persistent regional power supply issues
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2018-09-24

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