Last night, President Donald Trump had a historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at Singapore’s Capella Hotel, a five-star resort with beautifully appointed suites, big-screen TVs, and recessed lights.
While Kim was safely ensconced in well-lit luxury, his countrymen were not so fortunate. Indeed, the Kim family’s 70-year reign of terror in North Korea has been abetted by its ability to starve its own people of electricity. A staggering 18.4 million North Koreans, some 70 percent of the country’s population, do not have access to electrical power.
Indeed, by restricting electricity use, Kim has turned it into a weapon. In February, as sanctions on his country began pinching his regime’s finances, rather than increase the supply of electricity to North Koreans, he began selling it to China. According to the Seoul-based publication Daily NK, the electricity from a hydroelectric dam in the western part of the country was being supplied to a Chinese factory that produces fire-proofing materials. In return, Kim’s regime is getting cash payments of up to $100,000 per month. The Daily NK also reported that “The abrupt choice to export electricity means that the absolute amount of energy supplied domestically will be reduced. Power will continue to be supplied first and foremost to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il idolization sites, munitions factories, and essential government organizations like the Party, and intelligence bodies, etc.”
North Korea is so short of power that last year, Kim’s regime began installing electric meters in buildings in the capital, Pyongyang, which suffers from frequent blackouts, as part of an effort to reduce electricity consumption. The electricity-starved North stands in stark contrast to the astoundingly well-lit economic powerhouse on the south of the Korean Peninsula.
In 1973, 20 years after an armistice halted the Korean War, residents of North Korea were using more electricity than their counterparts in the South. By 1983, when Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, was ruling the country, per capita electricity consumption in the two countries was nearly identical, at about 1,100 kilowatt-hours per year according to World Bank data.
Since then, South Korea has boomed while the North has unplugged. Between 1983 and 2014, South Korea’s per capita electricity use increased nine-fold to 10,497 kilowatt-hours per year. Over that same time span, its per capita GDP soared, increasing nearly eleven-fold to some $27,538. Meanwhile, the unfortunate citizens of North Korea have experienced unremitting misery. By 2014, according to the World Bank, electricity use in North Korea had fallen by 45 percent to just 600 kilowatt-hours per capita per year, and per capita GDP was estimated at $1,800 per year, 15 times less than what prevails in the South.
In addition to their economic success, South Koreans enjoy the world’s fastest average Internet-connection speed, at about 26 megabits per second. By contrast, last year, the Transitional Justice Working Group reported that North Koreans can be executed solely for having or distributing media from South Korea. The report said that Kim’s regime routinely conducts public executions of prisoners — in schools, markets, and public parks — as a way of keeping the population in fear. By weaponizing electricity — that is, by preventing his people from having it — Kim can prevent them from accessing media, and therefore learning about what is happening in the South and the rest of the world.
All of which is to say that, while the world’s eyes are glued to Singapore, it is worth remembering how we got to this point: Kim has been able to cling to power, in part, by keeping his people in the dark. And given his family’s ruthless history, it appears that’s exactly where he plans to keep them.