The North Korean capital of Pyongyang is known for its comparatively better standards of living and access to amenities than the rest of the country. However, recent reports suggest that even residents of Pyongyang have been unable to adequately heat their homes in winter. Although most homes are equipped with some sort of heating devices, the lack of natural resources and dilapidated central boilers means that even Pyongyang residents are experiencing difficulties.
Typically, these central boilers produce hot water that is pumped to housing complexes and public buildings to run central heat-exchange units. However, due to broken pipes and subsequent leaks, the hot water is not being delivered effectively.
The issue of air pockets in the pipes, which arise from the common practice of diverting the hot water for other uses, is also preventing the proper distribution of this vital heat source.
In districts without access to the hot water produced by central boilers, families tend to rely on non-electric boilers for heating. These boilers are usually installed on private balconies, where water is boiled and the steam produced is then distributed into the home.
However, many residents in Pyongyang are unable to scavenge the fuel for these boilers due to strict ‘city beautification’ regulations against dumping, which in turn has provided a business opportunity for people in the surrounding districts to bring fuel into the city. Inminban units manage the receipt of these fuel materials by gathering funds from residents and running reprocessing plants in line with the city’s beautification regulations.
Another major problem stems from the installation of these non-electric boilers. Since most buildings have not been designed to handle the load of the makeshift concrete slabs upon which the boilers are placed, there is a risk of floor collapse and other structural issues.
In provinces outside Pyongyang, the most common form of heating is the ondol – a furnace-powered floor heater. Many people prefer this method as it is more effective than convection heaters, warming the entire room via under-floor heat radiation.
But there are challenges with installing ondol systems in apartment buildings.
In order to maintain an efficient ondol, the system must be sealed and well-insulated, and the furnace must be kept raised from the ground. The chimney pipes must also be able to properly expel the smoke. The problem is that a proper ondol system with a chimney situated in the correct way requires the use of a heavy concrete slab, which can cause structural issues for the buildings.
Additionally, since the smoke extraction is usually accomplished through ducts running along the wall inside the home, it can be extremely difficult to repair any problems with the insulation meters or other associated elements under the floor. In order to construct a furnace that is high enough at its core heating area, the space between floors of the building must be larger, often reducing the actual height of the room.
The government had in the past handed down a policy to help prevent heat loss through the open balconies typical of rooms in North Korean buildings, recommending the installation of vinyl or other methods. Residents had to scrape together money to somehow pay for these changes, but after Kim Jong Il was quoted as saying they now looked like rabbit cages, people began abandoning the practice.
Another way that people are coping is by simply putting up foam insulation on the outer walls of the building. Some are placing sawdust or coal ash on the top floors of buildings.
Government buildings have also installed local boiler units or ondol systems in order to provide heating during winter, using coal briquettes or wood for fuel.
But severe problems remain for many. Even in Pyongyang, there are still many university dormitories, for example, which have no heating elements whatsoever. Students are required to sleep on vinyl mats in freezing cold rooms, with too many students squeezing into rooms with too few beds. Bedding can even become wet due to the condensation.
Due to insufficient electricity supplies, students are unable to use electric blankets even if they could afford them. In addition, the authorities do not allow the installation of furnace heaters, citing the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning and the potential structural risk to buildings. The fact remains that even in the country’s most privileged city, the authorities have failed to institute a way to heat the homes of its most favored citizens.