North Korea has ordered residents of a city that lies across the border from China to keep their lights on until 10 p.m. every night to hide the fact that the country is suffering from energy shortages, sources in the city told RFA.
Sinuiju sits just across the Yalu River from China’s Dandong, and the bridge that connects the two cities is one of the most heavily traversed border crossings between the two countries. Tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the “last bastion of communism” flock to Dandong’s riverside for photo ops, with the North Korean landscape in the background of their photos.
But the North Korean government is concerned about the outside world’s perceptions and has historically dressed up parts of the country visible from South Korea and China so that they appear to be more well off than they actually are.
Energy shortages, however, are common in North Korea and rolling blackouts are the norm in most places. Though Sinuiju, a city of 340,000, gets only four hours of electricity per day, residents living in areas visible from China must keep their lights on at night. The authorities even ordered that they generate their own power to do this.
“Instructions were issued from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] to illuminate houses until 10 p.m. in areas of Sinuiju facing China, including Yokchon-dong and Kwanmun-dong,” a Sinuiju resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service May 8.
“These days, electricity for the city from the Supung power station is guaranteed for four hours a day based on mealtimes. They give us electricity from 6 to 8 in the morning and 6 to 8 in the evening. So from 8 to 10 in the evening, the residents have to keep the lights on with stored energy from solar panels,” said the source.
The source said that without the order to keep the lights on, the whole city would look completely dark when viewed from Dandong at night, and that would give the outside world that North Korea has serious economic difficulties.
“North Korea is giving ridiculous instructions to keep the lights on but won’t provide the electricity. They are making the residents generate their own, all in a show for the Chinese,” the source said.
“The people are angry at these absurd orders. They ask why they should care what Chinese people think of them. Do you know how hard it is to stock up on electricity to keep the lights on an extra two hours, especially for these residents who have a hard time making a living?” said the source.
Another Sinuiju resident told RFA that during some times of the year the city doesn’t even get four hours of power per day.
“Right now, electricity is well supplied. It is helpful to prepare meals with a stable electricity supply for two hours early in the morning and two hours from 6 p.m.,” said the second source, who confirmed that areas near the river had to remain illuminated on their own dime from 8 to 10 p.m.
The second source said that the city is supplied by a hydropower station which operates with decreased output in the winter, but the residents appreciate not having to eat in darkness in the springtime.
“However, the Central Committee ordered us to keep the lights on until 10 p.m., saying that the Chinese across the river might think that North Korea is suffering from economic difficulties if they see nothing but darkness when looking at North Korea.
“Because of their orders, the price of solar power storage units has more than doubled.”
Sources told RFA that residents who fail to keep the lights on at night are subject to fines and penalties, but punishments tend to be light because of the high price of power storage units. Additionally, the order only applies to the parts of the city visible from China, not the entire city.
North Korea has built entire fake towns for propaganda purposes. The most well-known is Kijong-dong, on the Northern side of the DMZ separating it from South Korea.
Though the North claims the brightly painted and well maintained Kijong-dong is home to 200 families who work on a collective farm there, with advances in imaging technology, experts believe that many of the structures in Kijong-dong are nothing but empty shells.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.