Anyone who has looked at satellite photos of Earth has witnessed the awesome sight of the lights of human civilization spread out over the globe in vast patches, broken up only by broad stretches of empty desert or vast swaths of ocean. Even the oceans and the deserts have scattered lights in them, like lone stars beside the galaxies and constellations that are cities and urban hubs. But there is one area on the Earth that is dark not because it is sparsely inhabited, or without urban centers. North Korea is a significant gap in the broad blanket of light that stretches from the tip of the Korean peninsula from Pusan on the coast of South Korea to meet the economically bustling borders of China’s Jilin province. This startling difference could be due to North Korea’s relative economic isolation, or the darkness could be a simple matter of frugality.
In videos taken from the International Space Station, North Korea looks like an empty stretch of ocean with an oddly unnatural southern border where the demilitarized zone lines the boundary between North and South Korea as if highlighted. In fact it is, considering the amount of military activity that takes place on the southern side of the border, and the electrical power allotted to the area. It looks like an extraordinarily well-lit coastline.
What of the true coastlines of the two countries? The crew of Expedition 38 on the ISS say that most countries’ coast are visible even at night. North Korea’s lack of visible coastline, however, is the exception, making the nation look like a channel between the Yellow Sea to the southwest and the Sea of Japan to the northeast.
The starkest difference, however, can be seen when comparing the two nations’ population centers. Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, appears like a dimly-lit island in the midst of this inlet between South Korea’s veritable island of light and China’s shining shores. In comparison Seoul, South Korea’s nearby capital, is a bright and bustling hub of economic success.
Pyongyang houses approximately three million residents in comparison to Seoul’s 10.4 million (Seoul actually accounts for 25.6 million people in its greater metropolitan area). The entire population of North Korea is similar to that of Seoul’s metropolitan hub in that North Korea in its entirety is thought to house 24.76 million people. In comparison, South Korea has close to 50 million residents within its national borders.
This difference in population, however, does not entirely account for the dimness of the light coming from Pyongyang, which appears from space to be only as bright as one of South Korea or China’s smaller towns. The amount of light showing from cities has long been recognized by politicians and economists as a sign of a lack of economic success, as the more of a hub a city is, the more resources are pumped into that hub, and the more brightly it shines from space. China’s nearby border area is not significantly populated in comparison with the more tightly-packed South Korea, and like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China is a communist country. The People’s Republic of China, however, is also an economic powerhouse, and the stark difference in light pollution between the two neighboring communist nations is obvious from space.
This correlation is one interpretation of the disparate lights in North Korea as night crosses the globe. In this interpretation, the vast gulf in kilowatt-hours used per person within the two neighboring countries indicates a lack of commerce due to North Korea’s policy of isolation. Estimates from orbit indicate that while citizens of South Korea use up to 10,162kwh per person, their counterparts use approximately 739kwh apiece. NASA has reported observations that seem to indicate North Koreans are able to use power for only a few hours a day on average. But is this usage pattern a matter of voluntary frugality, a sign of patriotic conservation, or is North Korea kept in the dark due to policies of isolation?
It could be either. When looking at the world from space, once could interpret the stunning amount of light radiating from the world’s hubs as indicative of an overuse of power, an indication of our general lack of conservation that we will keep the lights on through the night no matter what the cost to environment, sleep patterns, and economic imbalance. Looked at in this light, North Korea’s uniqueness could be seen as an indication of impressive frugality and environmental conservation, or a visible attempt to reduce light pollution. Or, the economists could be right.
It is difficult to be sure, with channels of communication between North Korea and most other countries remaining short and curt, and every interaction laced with indications of paranoia, as when a recent joint weapons testing exercise between Japan and the U.S. was met with accusations from Pyongyang that the two nations were preparing to invade North Korea. Therefore, though it is possible to posit that the lack of constant light coming from the isolated country shows laudable restraint in the use of electricity for a country with a population numbering in the millions, it is likely not the entire story.
North Korea’s stance on human rights is well known after multiple incidents addressed in commentary within the U.N. and activist circles over the decades since the standstill developed between the two Koreas. North Korea has also become famous all over the globe for its strict isolationism, its control of the flow of information to its citizens, and its insistence that it runs just fine and is perfectly competitive with the rest of the world despite its reclusive economic and social policies.
North Korea, by cutting off trade to a trickle in order to control the flow of information between its citizens and the wider world, has also cut off innumerable sources of revenue to pay for infrastructure improvements such as sufficient electrical power to afford same to all its citizens whenever needed. In such a situation, electrical power must be horded and centralized like any other commodity so that the government is able to make use of it whenever it finds the power needful for defense or other strategic reasons.
Kim Jong Un, the leader of the DPRK, has insisted that his country is a healthy and economically sound communist country. The resounding darkness in North Korea’s night, the frugal use of power, seems to indicate the opposite, when taken into account with its isolationist policies. The stark difference between North Korea and its neighbors in South Korea and the PRC only highlights the disparity between words and reality. Whatever the reason for the differences between the three nations, it is so vast, it can be seen from orbit.
By Kat Turner