John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The energy disparity between Pyongyang and its neighbors is clearer than ever in this awesome NASA satellite shot.
Pyongyang has a probable population of more than 3 million people, but you wouldn't know it looking down on the city from space. Only the faintest of glimmers rise from the metropolis, as if all its residents are huddling in the dark for their Supreme Leader's surprise birthday party.
The world has known of North Korea's night-invisibility for a while. On imagery captured by military satellites in the '90s, the country shows up like a gaping hole in the flaming latticework of light that is Japan, South Korea and China. But recent overpasses by NASA's Suomi NPP spacecraft – the one that provided those marvelous shots of nocturnal America – has revealed the country's energy bankruptcy in a level of detail never seen before.
Suomi took these images in September with its mega-sensitive Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, which can pick out dim light sources such as reflected moonbeams and boat beacons. Today, NASA featured the material on its Earth Observatory site, pointing out that North Korea has fewer lights than the Yellow Sea where glowing fishing vessels "appear to form a line, as if marking a watery boundary between nations":
The residents of North Korea, who today are estimated to number about 25 million, entered an extended age of blackness in the early 90s when the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it Pyongyang's source of cheap Communist fuel. Power stations fell into disrepair, leaving the country at a dismal 71st place in the 2009 worldwide ranking of national electricity production. (South Korea is 12th.) Many North Koreans still blame the United States for their continual bumping into walls in streets so dark you can't see the buildings on either side. According to Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:
North Koreans beyond middle age remember well when they had more electricity (and for that matter food) than their pro-American cousins in South Korea, and that compounds the indignity of spending their nights sitting in the dark. Back in the 1990s, the United States offered to help North Korea with its energy needs if it gave up its nuclear weapons program. But the deal fell apart after the Bush administration accused the North Koreans of reneging on their promises. North Koreans complain bitterly about the darkness, which they still blame on the U.S. sanctions. They can't read at night. They can't watch television. "We have no culture without electricity," a burly North Korean security guard once told me accusingly.
This is a wider Suomi shot of the Koreas (a downloadable version is here):
Contrast the quality of that image with this composite photo of the same area, compiled from 1994 to 1995 by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Operational Linescan System. There's just no competition: