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Tide power among North Korea’s new sanctions-proof energy technologies

The North’s renewed focus on oil alternatives underscores what some foreign observers believe are two of its long-term best bets.

Kim Jong-un visits the construction site of a hydroelectric power plant in North Hamgyong Province, North Korea, last year.

Kim Jong-un visits the construction site of a hydroelectric power plant in North Hamgyong Province, North Korea, last year.Credit:KCNA/AP

Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il, tried to get international support for developing nuclear power in the 1990s before the North ultimately opted instead for nuclear weapons. That brought some of the most intense sanctions ever applied by the United Nations against the country, making its energy situation even more precarious.

But coal is something North Korea has in abundance.

It’s used to supply thermal power plants and factories, to heat homes and to make fertiliser and even a kind of cloth, called Vinylon. Slow-running, smoke-belching trucks that use a gasification process with firewood are common in the countryside. Coal isn’t generally seen as a good oil-product substitute because converting it to a liquid form is inefficient and expensive – coal gasification was last used on a large scale in Nazi Germany to keep its cars and trucks moving.

Given North Korea’s limited options, it’s a technology that appears to be paying off.

The output from just one gasifier unit reportedly destined for the North Sunchon Chemical Plant, north of Pyongyang, could yield synthetic fuel amounting to about 10 per cent of the North’s recent petroleum supply, according to a recent study for the Nautilus Institute by David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, two of the foremost experts on the issue. The study cited as one of its sources a Wall Street Journal report from December that tracked the unit to a Chinese exporter.

The facility is believed to be a centre of “C-1” technology, which uses coal to make a kind of gas used to produce synthetic fuels, industrial chemicals and fertilisers.

Now that China has reduced its coal imports from the North in line with the sanctions, there’s more available for gasification.

“The project appears to provide a significant benefit to the DPRK, in terms of supplying fuels to compensate for petroleum product imports that run afoul of United Nations Security Council sanctions passed in the last two years, although the project will not completely replace all lost imports on its own,” they wrote in the report. DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The North’s interest in tidal energy also reflects a practical desire to exploit existing resources.

The West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea.

The West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea.Credit:AP

Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament with extensive experience with the North, said he has had several discussions with North Korean officials regarding tidal power and even helped arrange a study tour to a facility in the UK a decade ago. He said they have tried to invite experts to the North.

The country is perfectly situated for tidal power.

“The bulk of the Korean Peninsula’s west coast is a rich tidal power resource,” Ford said in a telephone interview.

“There are some detailed studies of the potential in South Korea and the same resources are there to be exploited north of the Demilitarised Zone.”

The world’s largest functioning tidal power plant is located near the South Korean city of Ansan. It opened in 2011 and produces about enough power to support a city of 500,000.

Kim Jong-un has shown a strong penchant for mobilising his million-man military on big projects. And the North has shown it can build something like a tidal power plant.

A model of the West Sea Barrage built in Nampo.

A model of the West Sea Barrage built in Nampo.Credit:AP

One of North Korea’s proudest accomplishments is the gigantic West Sea Barrage, which was completed in 1986 at a cost of $US4 billion ($5.6 billion). The huge seawall near the city of Nampo, a port about an hour’s drive from the capital, crosses the mouth of the Taedong River and helps control flooding and reduce the amount of salt that seeps in from the ocean, increasing the amount and quality of arable land.

“The attraction is that, apart from the turbines, it is all a gigantic earth-moving project,” Ford said. “That’s ideal for the Korean People’s Army skillset.”


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