NCNK Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 1
January 13, 2009
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A DPRK “Shangri-la” Powered by Solar Electricity
By Victor Hsu
In 1988 Bongsu Church — the first Protestant Church built in Pyongyang since the end of the Korean War — opened its doors for the first time. The following year the Korean Christians Federation asked if my organization, Church World Service, would provide a generator for the brand new church. A generator would enable parishioners to enjoy air conditioning during the hot summer months when the temperature can reach 85 degrees Fahrenheit and above. I suggested to the church officials that we install solar generators from China. However, lacking experience with solar power, they preferred the more familiar diesel-powered generators. But the seeds of interest in alternative sources of energy were just starting to grow. Soon after this exchange I learned that the DPRK was investigating the possibility of using another form of renewable energy — windmills.
I have been visiting the DPRK for two decades in many different capacities, most recently as the DPRK National Director of World Vision International (WVI). Over this time, I have learned, as have many of my colleagues from the United States and around the world, that knowledge-sharing and knowledge transfer enhance the benefits of humanitarian assistance. There is increasing evidence that the DPRK seeks out and appreciates this form of international cooperation.
Since 2000, various technical cooperation and assistance projects have involved NGOs and professional organizations in Europe and North America, especially in the field of agriculture and medicine.
World Vision International (WVI) has been active in DPRK since 1995, when a serious humanitarian crisis hit the country. In 2006, shortly after becoming DPRK National Director at WVI, I suggested to the DPR-Korean American Private Exchange Society (KAPES) that they designate a province where WVI could concentrate its humanitarian interventions. Subsequently, after discussions with the DPRK Mission to the UN, North Hwanghae Province was designated as a World Vision International humanitarian zone, and we were asked to work in Dochi-ri. An ambassador at the DPRK Mission to the UN, Ambassador Han Song Ryol, told me he could envision the province becoming a DPRK Shangri-la!
Dochi-ri is a small sprawling farming community nestled in hilly terrain in Yongtan County, just about a two hours drive south of Pyongyang. A river runs through this community of 12,000 residents and the farmers enjoy a man-made reservoir. This village traditionally grows corn but has begun soybean cultivation as part of the DPRK agricultural program to replace corn with the more nutritious soybean. Like many “ris,” or villages, in the DPRK, Dochi-ri is served by a clinic and a nurse. Itinerant doctors visit the village for non-routine medical interventions. The clinic, the houses, the small primary school and the kindergarten rely on a sporadic electricity supply.
WVI agreed to provide Dochi-ri with an organic fertilizer plant, the first of its kind in the DPRK, a potable water and sanitation system, a bakery and a soymilk processing facility. We also agreed to upgrade the clinic, replace the roofs of the clinic, kindergarten and primary school, and replace the school furniture. All these projects have been completed over the last 2 years, with the exception of the potable water system, which will be finished by mid-2009. The 12, 000 Dochi-ri residents are happy with all of the various renovations, but they are most excited by one innovation: the experiment with solar generators. After careful research and planning among the DPRK partners at the national and local level with the help of a Chinese company, WVI agreed to provide solar generators to the school (5kWh), the clinic (3kWh) and the home of the village engineer (2kWh). These were purchased in China and installed by Chinese technicians.
Chinese technicians and American engineers – the latter coincidentally in Dochi-ri to drill wells and install the water and sanitation system – trained the local people’s committee managers on the use and maintenance of the generators. Our engineers have visited Dochir-ri several times over the past two years after the generators were installed and were happy to respond to all of the villagers’ technical questions. WVI engineers complimented our North Korean partners on the quality of the maintenance. Whenever the solar generator issue comes up in the conversations, our technicians assure the managers that good maintenance of the batteries will ensure at least the minimum of their five-year life span. Our engineers have no doubt that this will be the case given the track record of the DPRK’s technicians. DPRK technicians are known for the meticulousness and thoroughness of their approach to learning.
The village technician’s home with its constant supply of electricity is now the constant envy of the “ri.” In fact, the villagers are requesting WVI to supply each of their homes similar generator. When I visited Dochi-ri in September 2007 the engineer invited the WVI delegation to his home to show us how he is able to have lighting in his house and enjoy TV and music from his CD player. Though he could not speak a word of English, his smiles and a halting “Thank you!” were enough for us to know how the solar panels are making a real difference in the life of this farming community.
A year after the first generators were installed, Dochi-ri villagers determined that they needed a generator to power the water tower for the school. The decision to “go solar” was easy, based on the positive experiences with the first three generators. A fourth solar generator was installed in 2007, and it now provides water for the school. In the past two years, the cost of solar panels has soared, and China is investing heavily in anufacturing them. We hope to see a similar effort to design more powerful, maintenance-free and efficient batteries to enable us to continue to bring solar power to Dochi-ri and other villages in the DPRK.
The experience of the community has been overwhelmingly positive especially with regard to this low-maintenance but highly efficient technology. Now Dochi-ri has ready access to organic fertilizer for its crops, a water sanitation system, an upgraded school, kindergarten and clinic, and bread and soymilk for the children’s lunches. With electricity in the school and clinic, Dochi-ri is beginning to become the Ambassador’s vision of a DPRK Shangri-la!