Above: An exclusive video from Unification Media Group shows markets in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province. Video also available on Youtube (please seek permission from Unification Media group before use or reproduction of the video).
Solar panels have become an iconic symbol of self-sufficiency in North Korea, as residents step up to solve the government’s failings on their own. These trends underscore a dwindling lack of faith in the regime. “The leader [Kim Jong Un] can’t solve the energy problem, so we rely on the markets instead.” said one source in North Hamgyong Province.
An exclusive video of Chongjin City obtained by Daily NK in the beginning of March shows solar panel units attached to family homes.
According to Daily NK’s sources in North Hamgyong Province, a 10 watt array costs approximately 80 yuan (~$11.50), a 30 watt unit costs 240 yuan (~$35), a 50 watt unit sells for 400 yuan (~$58), and a 100 watt array sells for 800 yuan (~$116). Because the units are brought in from China through the Sino-Korean border, they tend to be cheaper near the border area.
The 30 watt units are popular amongst ordinary North Korean families. This is about the same price as 50-60 kilograms of rice in North Korea, making it a hefty sum for the ordinary people. Despite the prohibitive costs, many residents are eager to buy them.
Donju (North Korea’s nouveau riche) and Workers’ Party cadres tend to seek out the more powerful 50 watt units. Occasionally, solar panels manufactured in Japan, South Korea, and Egypt can be found in the markets.
“Until just a few years ago, you really only saw solar panels installed in the private homes of high ranking officials and on the buildings of major factories and trading companies,” said a separate source in North Hamgyong in a telephone call with Daily NK. “But these days, solar panels are widely purchased. In some areas, as many as 30-40% of homes have them installed. Purchasing a solar system remains out of reach for those families who still struggle to make ends, but for those who can afford them, having panels allows people to have lights on in the home at night.”
“In the past, people used to give food or money to neighbors with a solar panel in return for charging their devices. But these days, people prefer to purchase their own. By doing well in the marketplace, it’s possible to save enough over the course of a year to buy a panel fit for average family usage,” he continued.
Due to the costs involved, solar panels are often regarded as the family’s number one asset, and are also targeted by thieves. For this reason, many residents install the units high above a rooftop. In the video attained by Daily NK, numerous solar panels affixed to poles towering above the houses can be seen.
The popularity of solar panels and their reliable provision of electricity has in turn driven demand for consumer appliances. According to the source, residents use the panels to charge a range of different batteries. The batteries are then connected to a 12 volt converter so they can be connected to home appliances. In general, the 50 watt units connect to 55A batteries, and the 30 watt units connect to 28A batteries. Solar panels have driven rising sales of TVs, notetels (personal DVD players), electric rice cookers, transformers, chargers, batteries, cables, and more.
North Korea’s state companies historically manufactured 220 volt appliances as standard. But this has long been considered obsolete technology, and 12 volt Chinese appliances are now commonplace. This has in turn prompted a change in strategy by the state-run enterprises, and now these companies are also manufacturing 12 volt products.
According to Daily NK’s sources inside the country, when Chinese merchants exporting electrical goods to the North realized that the 12 volt products were selling better, they switched over to only sending 12 volt appliances. And now, domestic North Korean goods have switched from 220 to 12, so things have become more convenient for the residents.
The North Korean authorities are still struggling to deliver an effective solution to the country’s chronic power shortages. Since the 1990s, the regime has constructed hydroelectric power plants in a bid to alleviate the issue, but all power produced is first routed to Pyongyang, Kim family idolization buildings, government offices, munitions factories, and military installations.
The chronic power shortages are now being resolved by the marketplace, which has led to declining public sentiment towards the regime.
“The residents are openly complaining that state power generation is worthless,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK. “Food and energy problems are being solved by the markets, and people don’t expect much from the authorities anymore.”