Well-off residents of North Korea have been buying solar-powered lighting systems for use in their homes near the Chinese border, creating a brisk business that has forced down prices amid growing competition among merchants, according to sources inside and outside of the country.
A shopkeeper who sells solar-powered lights near the customs area in Dandong, a border city in northeast China’s Liaoning province, told RFA’s Korean Service that the price of a light-emitting diode (LED) bulb, solar panel and electric condenser unit—which converts solar energy into electricity—had fallen by U.S. $80 in recent years to U.S. $240.
“These used to sell for about U.S. $320 until last year,” the shopkeeper said. “However, there are lots of North Koreans coming to buy them, so new stores were opened, and prices were marked down because of sales competition.”
The shopkeeper said he sold a solar-powered system that could power lights in three rooms and a small television while recharging a cell phone at the same time, and offered markdowns to shoppers who purchased multiple items.
Sources said U.S. $240 for a solar-powered lighting system was a high price for North Koreans to pay, but those who could afford it would do so because low voltage LEDs operating on the system provided much brighter illumination than that of ordinary incandescent bulbs drawing electricity from the North’s heavily strained power grid.
Solar-powered systems also allow users to operate electrical appliances independent of North Korea’s unreliable power infrastructure, which suffers from frequent outages.
Another shopkeeper near the customs area in Dandong said North Koreans who bought solar-powered lighting systems were concerned about the short lifespan of the electric condensers.
“The performance of solar-powered [LED] lights is much the same, and solar panels are semi-permanent, but the lifespan of an electric condenser is just about one year,” the merchant said.
“Some North Koreans who bought this item asked me for an exchange because they could not understand the [limited] lifespan of an electric condenser.”
A source in Sinuiju, a North Korean city connected to Dandong via the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River, said about half of all households there had installed solar-powered lights.
He also said most households in the capital Pyongyang, which has the most reliable electricity supply in the country, had installed solar-powered lights.
North Korean state television reported in early 2013 that new solar-powered street lamps had been installed at various locations in the capital Pyongyang, according to North Korea Tech, a website that reports on IT in the country and is run by Martyn Williams, a senior correspondent at IDG News Service.
An associate professor at Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang developed the solar panel and battery combination for the street lights, although the technology is not as advanced as that used in Japanese and Chinese solar-panel production, the report said.
One source in China told RFA about a foreign news report suggesting North Korea appeared brighter at night.
“Recently, there was a foreign news report about how the night view of North Korea was a little bit brighter than before,” he said. “I think it is because the solar-powered lights have come into wide use among North Koreans.”
In July, sources told RFA that North Koreans were rushing to purchase China-made LED bulbs to light their homes, despite high costs, because of their comparative efficiency over incandescent bulbs.
They said the soaring popularity of LED bulbs was attributed to their ability to emit light despite North Korea’s regular failure to provide households with the full 220 volts required to operate most electrical appliances at full capacity.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.