When true self-reliance turns on the lights

Despite of lacking electricity distribution from the state, people are individually supplying electricity from solar panels at home (Image / iStock.com/znm.)

What image best captures the core difference between the two Koreas? 

Perhaps it is that famous photograph of the peninsula at night with the stark contrast between the blazing light of South Korea and the near darkness of North Korea. 

This single image speaks volumes. No more need be said. North Korea is a country shrouded in darkness.

Therein lies a story.

When I tell people about the well-known movies and Disney cartoons I watched when I was growing up in North Korea, they’re usually surprised.

“How could you watch TV in a country without electricity?” they ask.

I find this reaction strange to the point of being bizarre. It has been 145 years since electricity was invented and 99 years since TV was invented. The real surprise should be that North Koreans still lack access to electricity and TV. Instead, this seems to be accepted and people are surprised when they hear a North Korean has had access.

The truth is that, despite the absence of streetlights for the satellites to pick up, people still manage to use electricity. How that happens is a bit different from what we might think. 

When a country is developed with good infrastructure, everything seems great. Elevators, electricity, water supply, and gas all work. Our lives constantly benefit from these amenities. But what happens when disaster strikes and there’s a power outage? Recently, my mother and I experienced a 30-minute blackout caused by maintenance. She sat idly, unable to enjoy her TV shows, and I had to forgo my usual trip to the café, unwilling to choose a brief joy over my knee joints. I would have had to take the steps all the way down to the bottom of our apartment block. The situation was resolved in 30 minutes, but what if it had lasted a whole day? Or longer? What if a disaster shut down all infrastructure? Black swans happen.

In such a scenario, North Korea might not seem so bad. People there are accustomed to chronic emergencies and, though their methods are outdated and manual, they have disaster-resistant electricity and living facilities.

To explain, we all know the country has trouble generating electricity. While you may have watched Cinderella under a light bulb, I listened to my grandmother’s stories in a house lit by pine resin lamps. When it got dark, I played hide-and-seek with neighborhood kids until a rare moment when electricity arrived and we scampered home excitedly to eat dinner under electric lights, which always seemed tastier. The downside was when the lights went out during dinner. I once hit my chin with my spoon, eating in the dark as my mother rummaged for a candle.

Electricity has been a central topic in the leaders’ New Year addresses, yet there’s been little progress. Over the years, the available hours of electricity dwindled from five to three, to one, until it vanished completely. The government tried to solve this by supplying to specific groups and institutions, meaning those privileged few enjoyed 24-hour electricity, while others had none for months. 

This led people to seek solutions on their own. They would bribe officials in charge of designated groups to siphon off electricity. To get this “stolen electricity,” as it became known, you needed two conditions: proximity to a designated institution and money to bribe the officials. Limited access to electricity became a form of power in North Korean society. Residents flattered institutions, and institutions flattered departments or people in charge of distributing electricity. Of course, all this was done through money or bribes, which could be quite expensive.

If you were unable to meet these conditions, you had no choice but to wait indefinitely. 

In 2005, my home was one of those without electricity due to our inability to meet the first condition. We had no designated institution nearby. This was the situation until I left for college. I rarely watched TV or videos. At school, friends excitedly discussed new movies and cartoons, and I, who loved stories and imagination, felt envious of the boys mimicking movie scenes. 

I became a child who waited for rain, as that was the only time we had electricity, sometimes lasting for weeks. I grew to love the rain.

Electricity seemed like an unsolvable problem, but things changed in 2012 with the introduction of solar panels. Initially, these only provided lighting, not enough to power TVs or appliances, but sufficient for evening meals and study. No longer did we have to stop eating due to sudden blackouts or worry about kids burning their hair on candles while studying. 

The biggest advantage of solar panels was the freedom to use them without fear of surveillance. Solar panels, batteries, 12-volt TVs, and other devices flooded into North Korea, largely from China, contributing significantly to change. Now, North Koreans have more freedom with electricity and TV, relying on solar power.

Each household has a self-sufficient system and is no longer dependent on the government, and is less affected by disasters, though still subject to weather conditions such as sunlight, of course.

What I am saying is that for a long time, electricity was a problem North Koreans waited for the government to solve, but which they eventually obtained when they found their own solutions. 

This applies to more than electricity for homes. It represents a form of independence achieved under harsh conditions without government support. This makes it highly valuable. 

Having experienced this success through their own effort, North Koreans continue seeking independence in other aspects of life. Therefore, outsiders should consider not only the environment North Koreans find themselves in, but also their mindset in adapting to it.

I can sum this up with a popular North Korean anecdote that goes like this: Since 2012, the government promised that the door to a prosperous and powerful nation would open. Despite its efforts, though, the door didn’t budge. People started doubting if they could ever enter that room on the other side. Curiosity about what lay behind the door grew unbearable. One inquisitive young man peeked through the keyhole and then shouted in surprise, “There’s already an old man inside! His name is Self-Reliance!'”

Jang Mi
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