Pyongyang’s central district, which is home to the country’s senior officials, professors and other members of the elite, is reportedly suffering from severe environmental pollution from nearby factories, causing considerable discomfort for local residents.
“They always show a lot of tourists on state TV saying that Pyongyang is so clean, but that’s not really the case,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK. “The pollution from factories in Pyongchon District is terrible, so the people living there are having a really hard time.”
Pyongchon District, located north of the Taedong River, is home to a water treatment plant, the Pyongyang Thermal Power Plant, and the Taedong River Battery Factory. These factories are using aging machinery that produces high levels of pollution, according to the source.
According to the DPRK Environment and Climate Change Outlook report published in 2012 by UNEP and North Korea’s Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection, air quality in parts of Pyongyang have exceeded acceptable levels, while water quality in the Taedong River and other major rivers has gradually worsened.
“People get headaches from the smell coming from the water treatment plant,” said the source. “It isn’t so bad in the winter but when it rains in the summer, people can’t even open their windows because the smell is so bad.” The water treatment plant is reportedly unable to handle the volume of polluted water it receives.
For their part, the authorities have made efforts to expand the water treatment plant. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported in May this year that during Premier Kim Jae Ryong’s examination of the state of Pyongyang’s urban management, he called for thorough management and monitoring of the expansion of the treatment plant.
Pyongchon District also suffers from poor air quality. “The smell from the treatment plant is bad, and there’s a lot of coal dust coming from the thermal energy plant nearby,” said the source. “The dust just piles up on people’s floors even if they only open their windows briefly.”
He added that the plant is unable to fully burn its coal, so some of it leaves the factory through its chimneys.
“People have to keep their car windows closed when they pass by the area,” he said.
The Pyongyang Thermal Power Plant was built in 1965 with Soviet funding. The plant is now dilapidated and can no longer operate without producing harmful emissions.
South Korea’s Independent Power Producer Association (IPPA) released a report in 2017 entitled “Policy Proposals for Coal Energy Production in Consideration of the Environment, the Economy and Technology.” The report states that newly-built coal thermal power plants with the latest clean technology emit around 82% less pollution than older plants.
“There have been rumors since the Kim Il Sung era that the power plant will be moved to the provinces because of the detrimental effect it has on air quality in the city,” a separate source in Pyongyang reported.
“However, the authorities have not moved it because they’re afraid that its absence will exacerbate the electricity shortages in the city.”
Poor air quality has been blamed for hundreds of deaths in North Korea over the years. A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2018 (the World Health Statistics Report) estimated that 207 out of every 100,000 people in North Korea die due to poor air quality. This rate is 10 times higher than for South Koreans (20.5 people per 100,000), and nearly twice the rate in China (113 people per 100,000).