North Korea Keeps Kim Dynasty Statues Lit During Energy Shortage

Residents angry that country prioritizes cult of personality over their well-being.
2021-01-28
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North Korea Keeps Kim Dynasty Statues Lit During Energy Shortage North Koreans leave after paying respect to the bronze statues of their late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018.
AP

As the North Korean people shiver in darkness during a severe energy shortage this winter, many are angry that authorities are keeping statues of the country’s dynastic leaders illuminated through the night, sources living near the border with China told RFA.

Rolling blackouts are very common in North Korea, especially in rural areas, but even in the relatively affluent capital Pyongyang, people expect that they will go without electricity from time to time.

In cold Siberian winters, power generation from hydroelectric plants becomes less reliable, and the country’s coal-fired plants are insufficient to pick up the slack, leading to dark cities across the country, which looks entirely black at night in satellite photos.

But even though the country fails to supply electricity to households, authorities still spare no expense to keep alit every major city’s statues of deified former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the grandfather and father of current leader Kim Jong Un. Both are the center of a decades-old cult of personality.

“The authorities emphasized self-reliance at the eighth party congress, but they did not even manage to provide electricity to the residents, so many are still shivering in the dark,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, in the country’s northeast, told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.

During the rare meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party’s leadership, held Jan. 5 to 12, Kim Jong Un said that only through self-reliance could North Korea overcome its economic woes brought on by international nuclear sanctions and coronavirus-related import bans. This effectively meant that he was calling on the people to solve their own problems making a living.

“The residents expected something to change in their lives after the party congress, but now they are just disappointed and angry,” the source said.

2014-08-14T120000Z_2063830887_TM3EA8E10TO01_RTRMADP_3_NASA.JPG
Undated NASA handout picture of North Korea (the dark area) and South Korea as seen from the International Space Station. NASA/Handout via Reuters

Widely distributed satellite photographs of the Korean peninsula at nighttime show stark differences between the brightly lit South and the almost entirely blacked-out North. The source said that in North Hamgyong’s largest city Chongjin, authorities manage to at least keep the major thoroughfares lit. But even the dim specks of light that denote only North Korea’s largest cities when viewed from space are disappearing in the power shortages.

“Here in Chongjin, when darkness falls, the entire city becomes a completely dark world. Until last year… signboards of companies along arterial roads were illuminated, but they have all been turned off this year,” the source said.

The source said the entire city is shrouded in darkness, but in one city square, statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stand bathed in bright lights.

“If you go outside at night, it’s pitch black. The residents do not have any electricity at all, but that doesn’t stop them from lighting up the statues in Pohang Square,” the source said.

“The night is long and there are no lights even in the early evening these days… the recent emergency quarantines also keep people off the streets, so the city is like a ghost town,” said the source.

Chongjin gets much of its electricity from hydroelectric power, but freezing temperatures prevent its operation.

“Still, last winter, they supplied us with electricity for one or two hours each day. But this year we’re not even getting that. So the residents are very unhappy,” said the source.

Another source, a resident of North Pyongan province in the country’s northwest, told RFA that since the party congress, the supply of electricity has been at its most unreliable.

“The power distribution department is not supplying electricity for residential use at all, so Sinuiju is enveloped in darkness at nighttime. Even the regional electricity that they supplied for an hour in the morning and evening has been cut off,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“Even in the new luxury apartments, where they collected U.S. $700 from each household for a guarantee that they would supply electricity 365 days per year, electricity is only available at certain times. Only the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are lit up brightly 24 hours a day,” the second source said.

According to the North Pyongan resident, the Sinuiju municipal government had been telling residents that after the party congress, the electricity and tap water situation would improve.

“However, even after the congress we still have no tap water or electricity, so the residents are heaping criticism on the party officials,” said the second source.

“The entire city is in the dark, and only the statues… are brightly lit like they are in broad daylight. This is what is stoking the anger of residents,” the second source said.

Beyond the cold and the inconvenience, the blackouts are pinching food supplies in a country where most residents struggle with food insecurity.

“Due to the lack of electricity, it’s impossible to operate noodle factories or process any food, and this is the most important part of residents’ food supply. So seeing lights wasted on statues when no one else is around is most distressing.”

Using statistics from 2019, the CIA factbook reported that only 26 percent of North Korea’s population had access to electricity, meaning about 19 million of the country’s 25.6 million had no access at all. Electrification had reached 36 percent of urban areas and only 11 percent of rural areas in 2019.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

 

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