Gas gains energy market share in North Korean households

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.

Portable gas range in kitchen in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province (left); electric rice/pressure cooker (right
Portable gas range in kitchen in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province (left); electric rice/pressure cooker (right). Image: Daily NK

Unification Media Group (UMG): Today, we will discuss the latest trends in North Korea’s markets with Daily NK reporter Kang Mi Jin. Using gas for heating or cooking has long been common in South Korea, but we’ve heard recently that more and more North Koreans are buying gas for these purposes in local markets.

Kang Mi Jin (Kang): Gas became available in North Korea’s markets from the late 1990s. The gas sold in the markets was referred to as “gaseous fuel.” In the beginning, many used coal provided by their workplaces or cheap wood for heating or cooking, so they didn’t use gas that much. They focused much of their spending on food, and gas was viewed as a luxury.

Then in the 2000s, more and more North Koreans began using gas. This shows how much their lives improved. From the 1970s, houses in Pyongyang were being supplied with propane gas, although only the upper classes in the city were supplied in the beginning. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that all Pyongyang residents were supplied with propane. The use of propane fell during the early 1990s and by the mid-1990s no one was using it any more.

UMG: So the gas supplied to the upper classes was cut off in the mid-1990s when North Korea faced a severe economic crisis, and gas again made an appearance in the late 1990s at local markets. Does the state provide gas to its people anymore?

Kang: Some gas is sold through local markets, and the state still provides some areas with propane. Most residents on Mirae Scientists Street have been supplied with gas since 2018, according to North Korean sources. But the supply is irregular, and there’s just not enough to go around. This has pushed many people to go to the markets to buy it.

North Koreans who didn’t like gas refused to buy it in the beginning, but now they know that it’s convenient for short periods when necessary. Many North Koreans in Pyongyang use butane and propane, according to Pyongyang-based sources. And there are some people outside Pyongyang who are using gas. Gas isn’t provided by the state outside the capital, so people have to buy it at local markets.

UMG: As the country’s economy improved, South Korean families began to use butane, propane, LPG and other fuels instead of wood and coal. It seems like North Korea is going through a similar process.

Kang: Up until the 2000s, many North Koreans faced so many economic difficulties that they couldn’t afford it, but by the 2010s, marketization and other factors had significantly improved the economy. Families now prefer using gas because it’s so convenient.

I’ve found through my investigation that many well-off North Korean families in both the cities and in the countryside are now using gas.

Most people who live outside the mountainous and agricultural regions of the country buy their gas at local markets.

I used to live in Ryanggang Province and I’ve heard that more and more families are using gas in their kitchens. There are more people in Pochon and Sinpa counties, and even Huchang County using gas. This makes me think that the lives of people in my own hometown have improved a great deal.

UMG: If North Koreans use gas, they don’t need to use as much wood. This makes their lives easier. Do more people use gas in the mountainous regions or in agricultural areas?

Kang: I contacted a number of individuals who live in a mountainous part of the Sino-North Korean border region recently and they told me that many people are using propane and butane in their homes. I even saw a picture of a house located in the border region that was using butane. People are using less wood than before.

Families in both the cities and the countryside prefer gas over anything else. That being said, not as many people use gas in the agricultural inner regions of the country compared to the agricultural areas of the border region.

The sources I spoke to said that there were more people using gas than they had seen in 10 years. While the number of people using gas may be lower in areas that produce fuel, people will likely continue to prefer gas because it has fewer of the issues associated with coal and other forms of fuel.

UMG: So there’s differences in fuel use depending on the region and while areas that produce fuel don’t use as much, generally speaking, more and more people are using gas. What impact will this increasing gas usage have on North Korea’s economy?

Kang: More users of gas means more buyers at the local markets. Daily NK found that there has been an increase in the number of gas merchants at the markets. Local markets throughout the country are set up to sell both propane and butane on a regular basis, and people are using gas to improve the quality of their lives.

One woman I spoke to who lives in the border region said that she had been scared of gas because she thought it was dangerous. She refused to buy it. But now she feels foolish for thinking that way and uses wood and coal to heat her home in the winter and gas for cooking in the summer. Propane is more expensive than butane so it’s mostly the wealthy families that use it.