NASA / ISS

Power cuts make the dictatorship virtually disappear at night.

North Korea may be a horribly repressive dictatorship by day. At night, it also does a good impression of being nothing – a barren wasteland, an expanse of ocean, a light-devouring black hole.

That's if you look at it from space, as one of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station recently did. This photo from more than 200 miles above the planet's surface shows just what a difference a robust electric grid can make on a country's appearance. To the north is China, blazing out of the darkness like a sea of fire. Below is South Korea, its borders defined as clearly as patterns on a Lite-Brite. And between these two is a big sandwich of darkness with Pyongyang, a city of more than 3 million people, emitting only the faintest smudge of fluorescence.

North Korea's invisibility cloak is due to mandatory power cuts at night, part of the country's struggle to conserve its precious energy. Comparing its capital city to other nearby fixtures, NASA says it shows a light signature that's "equivalent to the smaller towns in South Korea." The space agency has a few more details to share about this singular image:

Unlike daylight images, city lights at night illustrate dramatically the relative economic importance of cities, as gauged by relative size. In this north-looking view, it is immediately obvious that greater Seoul is a major city and that the port of Gunsan is minor by comparison. There are 25.6 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area – more than half of South Korea’s citizens – while Gunsan’s population is 280,000....

Coastlines are often very apparent in night imagery, as shown by South Korea’s eastern shoreline. But the coast of North Korea is difficult to detect. These differences are illustrated in per capita power consumption in the two countries, with South Korea at 10,162 kilowatt hours and North Korea at 739 kilowatt hours.

North Korea has flickered like a candle among klieg lights since the early 90s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union limited its access to inexpensive, Communist-approved fuel. A subsequent energy deal with the Americans fell apart, leaving many North Koreans resentful to this day toward the United States. The once-developed nation now ranks 71st in power consumption; it's so dark at night people out for a stroll sometimes can't even see the buildings on either side of them.

Here's an animated view of the space station's flyover of the Korean peninsula – there's a high-def though slow-loading version at the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth:

Photo and video courtesy of NASA and the ISS crew

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