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Nautilus: Rapid Relief and Reconstruction in a DPRK Humanitarian Energy Crisis

As discussed in an earlier blog piece, poor energy infrastructure, lack of inputs and the resulting energy insufficiency and poverty is a core element of North Korea’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. In the case of major instability in the DPRK, the production and supply of energy will be a critical part of mitigating a humanitarian catastrophe. The Nautilus Institute, who have exceptional experience around the issue of energy production and supply in the DPRK, recently produced a paper detailing the challenges and options for meeting immediate demands in the case of instability in the DPRK. The paper examined in the particular actions that could be taken by the ROK government and military as well as US forces who are likely to play a key role in stabilising the Korean Peninsula in such a scenario. The paper recognised that more work is required to examine the requirements and roles of external bodies such as NGOs and the DPRK’s northern neighbours, China and Russia.

Some of the key highlights of the paper include:

  • A discussion of vulnerable populations, regions with particular energy deficits, industrial and public services sectors that are at risk and unanticipated shocks. For example the report highlights the issue of sewage treatment and possible public health impacts of a failure in this sector due to a shortage of power and necessary chemicals.
  • A list of energy relief strategies. The paper points out that a number of ROK institutions have substantive plans for the long-term rehabilitation and integration of the North’s energy system. However, the short-term or immediate requirements in the case of instability may not have received adequate discussion or attention. The list includes proposals for the power sector, institutional strategies, fuel stocks, households and community strategies.
  • Energy rehabilitation. The paper also has a comprehensive discussion of energy rehabilitation and the balance between short-term provision and long-term efficiency and development of the energy sector in the DPRK.

The paper can be found here.

Heating in North Korea

It is an unfortunate reality that the most unappealing of problems often cause the most suffering for those living in poverty. This is a perpetual challenge for fundraisers: how to make topics such as toilets, sewage and diseases like obstetric fistula ‘attractive’ causes for fundraising. In recent years the humanitarian, and even political, community have begun to publicly tackle these issues. The provision of toilets, for example, is now a hot topic. So much so that there is now a ‘World Toilet Day’ and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared ‘toilets before temples’ in his inaugural address. Obstetric fistula, a devastating injury caused by childbirth that leads to incontinence, has attracted the support of the (commendable) celebrity Natalie Inbruglia, who has been willing to associate herself with one of the more difficult humanitarian causes (perhaps one of the few examples where celebrity really can help humanitarian causes by bringing such topics to the fore of public debate).

One such ‘unattractive’ topic that would attract my celebrity (if I had any) is heating and fuel. Unfortunately it is hard to imagine Angelina leading a campaign for the provision of cooking stoves but a shortage of heating and cooking fuel remains one of a key sources of poverty for many populations across the world – not least in North Korea. Those who are working on issues around energy and fuel poverty face a number of challenges aside from the perceived ‘boring’ nature of the topic. First, there is a perception that countries in humanitarian need are hot – African, middle-eastern or Asian countries where war, failing crops and tropical disease present the greatest challenge. Second, fuel poverty is a real problem of advanced nations leading to significant levels of morbidity in winter, so there is often enough to do in one’s own country before looking overseas to find new places facing similar challenges.

As someone who really feels the cold, I am haunted by the idea of surviving in a North Korean winter. Winter there brings with it a whole set of new challenges to a population already beset with chronic food shortages, poor housing, transport, healthcare and sanitation. And two other items in the news recently reminded me of the topic of heating. First, a short article in the Guardian discussed how North Koreans keep warm in winter. The second, was the hilarious riposte to the ill-conceived Band Aid 30 song which took the form of a parody charity song by African singers about raising money to send radiators to Norway (radi-aid!!). It was a well-produced joke, but one that nevertheless reminded me of the importance of heating and fuel as a humanitarian requirement (maybe the song can move beyond its current parody status to raise money for the cause, albeit for a country other than oil-rich Norway!).

The challenge of providing fuel for heating and cooking is not new for people working in a variety of humanitarian contexts, even parts of Africa. Moreover, many refugees will face yet another cold winter in their countries of refuge least those fleeing from Syria and Iraq. But there are many protracted humanitarian crises in countries like North Korea, Mongolia, Central Asia – and even parts of Africa and South Asia – where winter brings new complexities to existing challenges each year. I have not seen any estimates of how many North Koreans are killed by the cold winter, but I’m sure that cold leads to high numbers of deaths, particularly among the most vulnerable, that would rival many natural disasters.

There are a number of excellent ideas for improving the energy situation in North Korea. Energy is needed not only for heating, of course, but by households for lighting, cooking and basic commerce. Many of these ideas are based on renewable sources and being driven by organisations often themselves based in developing countries. This should arguably be a key focus for NGOs working in North Korea as a means of empowering individuals to improve their living conditions. Among other NGOs based in North Korea, however, there is little mention of energy provision in the work currently undertaken inside the country. One such organisation who has focused on this issue, specifically relating to North Korea is the Nautilus Institute who is doing incredible work looking at country, community and individual level solutions to the North’s energy crisis.

Provision of heating materials may be an effective way of reaching those in need in North Korea without the concerns of diversion that relate to the provision of other types of aid. After all, those in the elites will have access to reliable sources of energy in cities such as Pyongyang and Rajin-Sonbong and one would think that many would not be interested in the basic heating and cooking systems that would be distributed by NGOs (they would not power the DVD players and computers, for example!). And although it is hard to prioritise the humanitarian needs of North Koreans, there being so many, as I go to sleep this evening, in a bitterly cold Northumberland in the Northeast of the UK, I imagine that if I were in North Korea, right now one of my personal priorities would be to keep myself and my family warm.