Interpreting power shortages



North Korea’s problems with electrical power generation and distribution are well-known. The situation tends to worsen in the winter when some communities, which have detached from the unreliable national grid by relying on local mini-dams to generate hydropower, re-attach themselves to the grid as local rivers and streams freeze rendering the dams unusable.  Over the last month, multiple sources, including returning visitors, IFES, and Open Radio for North Korea (ORNK) have all reported difficult conditions in various parts of the country, including Pyongyang itself.

But the interpretation of these stories is problematic. Under conditions of significant excess demand, outages are a function of both the level of production (and efficiency in distribution) as well as rationing among alternative users. These allocation choices are subject to at least a certain degree of political control.  Factories may go without power if the needs of Pyongyang residents are considered more essential.  Similarly, outages in Pyongyang may imply that other needs are being prioritized.  The same story can play out at the local level, and such conflicts over distribution reportedly occur among local actors and with the central authorities. Perversely, steady power in Pyongyang may imply industrial needs are going unfulfilled.

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