North Korea’s capital is experiencing severe power shortages this winter, in part due to the inability of a recently completed hydroelectric dam to operate at full capacity during the annual dry season, according to sources inside the country.
Ordinary citizens in Pyongyang, where residents normally enjoy one of the most reliable power supplies in any city across the impoverished nation, are now facing as little as five hours a day of electricity, a source who lives in the capital told RFA’s Korean Service this week.
The power supply in the region had been significantly more consistent since the completion in April of the Huichon No. 2 Power Station—a hydroelectric plant located at a dam in Jagang province, about 175 kilometers (109 miles) northwest of the capital.
But the Pyongyang resident, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity during a recent trip to China, said that the dry season had rapidly depleted the dam’s water supply, hampering its rate of operation.
“The situation of Pyongyang’s electricity—which seemed okay until October—has returned to pre-dam levels,” the source said.
“I heard it is because of a lack of water during the winter.”
According to a report by the Associated Press, North Korean officials had touted the dam’s ability to provide “half of Pyongyang’s energy needs” as recently as June.
But even then, the AP reported, citing the plant’s general manager Kim Su Gil, drought had left the river above the dam too low for the power station to reach full capacity.
With the further lack of water during the winter dry season, the source in Pyongyang said, the dam was able to provide regular power to only a few select buildings in the capital, which included monuments to the Kim family regime and dwellings for the city’s elite.
“Only the Kim idolization facilities, apartments for Central Party officials, the [43-story] Koryo Hotel and [the new] Changjeon St. [housing development] have 24-hour electricity, while the districts where ordinary people live can only use electricity for five hours a day,” the source said.
North Korea maintains gathering places for citizens to show their allegiance to ruler Kim Jong Un, his father Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack in December last year, and his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder.
The 100,000-home development underway on Changjeon St., which former leader Kim Jong Il ordered after reportedly declaring the streets of the capital to be “pitiful” upon his return from a trip to China, and the Koryo Hotel, the second-largest operating hotel in the city, are two of Pyongyang’s few showpieces.
Electricity for ordinary residents is provided only late at night or around dawn so that people cannot use it during the evening when they really need it, the source said.
He added that people in the capital had come to see the preferential treatment for the city’s elite as “severe discrimination.”
Even in Sinuiju city—which neighbors China’s Dandong city and has traditionally enjoyed a reliable power supply due to its designation as an experimental market economy zone in North Pyongan province—ordinary residents are being limited to five hours a day of electricity, the source said.
He said an area of the city near a statue of Kim Il Sung was recently enjoying 24-hour electricity.
Electric blanket decree
Another source in Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service that even while residents of the capital were experiencing harsh power shortages, authorities had recently issued a decree allowing people to make use of electric blankets during the cold winter months.
“The North Korean government has allowed people to use electric blankets, which had been prohibited for a while due to the shortage of electricity,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
“People hadn’t followed the policy anyway and were using electric blankets secretly, so I think the government gave up on the prohibition and decided to play it up as a benefit from Kim Jong Un,” he said.
According to the AP, the Huichon No. 2 Power Station is North Korea's largest construction project since the 1980s and is expected to be expanded to 12 stations by 2015.
The country suffers from widespread electricity shortages and is now moving towards hydroelectric power as a supplement for its dwindling coal resources.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Ju Hyeon Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.