Darkness Still Shrouds N.Korea

A group of researchers at Brown University in 2009 demonstrated a proportional relationship between a country's economic growth and incomes and how bright it looks at night. The researchers used a satellite photo of the six continents taken at night as evidence. Only five continents were visible, but it was difficult to spot any sources of light in Africa. Statistical data provided by developing countries are often unreliable, so the night-time satellite photos provide valuable information for researchers. The better the economic condition of a particular region, the more developed its infrastructure and the brighter it appears on satellite photos at night due to the abundance of electricity powering light sources.

A few years ago, I traveled from Dandong along the Apnok River that separates China and North Korea. About a half hour's drive into the trip, I noticed that the North Korean side of the border had turned pitch black. Only a faint glimmer of light appeared some time later. I asked my guide where that light was coming from and he told me that it was a signal being sent by smugglers announcing that they are about to cross.

In 2010, North Korea's power generation amounted to just five percent of South Korea's. In the North, only one out of four people can use electricity, which is about the level of Ethiopia. A group of doctors from a university hospital in South Korea went to North Korea to supply vaccines and were dumbfounded. "A cold chain of refrigerated transportation is essential for vaccines, but there were no refrigerators," said one of the doctors. "So we brought refrigerators the next time, but found there was no electricity. So we sent them power generators."

In July, Pyongyang invited foreign journalists to watch ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War, which in the North is called "Victory Day." But a power outage during the ceremony ended up embarrassing the North.

The Chosun Ilbo on its front page on Wednesday carried a photo taken from space that shows the darkness of North Korea. It was taken by astronauts who had stopped by a space station and posted on the NASA homepage. It resembled a picture of North Korea that former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he kept it on his desk to contemplate Korean issues, but the quality is even better. The three Chinese provinces just across the border are glittering, while the North Korean side lies in pitch darkness. South Korea looks like an island.

NASA said, "City lights at night illustrate dramatically the relative economic importance of cities, as gauged by relative size." It's been 70 years since the Korean Peninsula was divided between North and South, and now people on either side of the border use different words for the same things and even look physically different. Rumsfeld said there was too much difference between the two sides even though the people speak the same language. The only thing that hasn't changed is North Korea's fanatical worship of its leader. Perhaps the glimmer of light I saw across the Apnok River was a plea for help?

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Lee Myong-chin
englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 27, 2014 12:41 KST