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North Korea’s Dark Secret: ‘100-Year Drought’ Is Knocking Out Its Power Supply

The hydroelectric-reliant Hermit Kingdom just admitted it’s in its ‘worst drought in 100 years’ and can’t even keep its lights on. But the secret economy might keep North Koreans from starving to death this time.

Jacky Chen / Reuters

Kim Jong Un’s next big crisis may be harder to Photoshop over, unless his propaganda artists have very strong battery backups.

North Korea is experiencing severe power outages as a crippling drought has led to increased failures by its hydroelectric-fueled power grid. The Hermit Kingdom admitted last Tuesday, through its state-run news agency KCNA, that it was suffering through “the worst drought in 100 years,” the effects of which have caused “great damage” to its agriculture as well as its already-beleaguered people.

An unusually dry 2014 followed by an arid spring this spring has crippled the North Korea power supply, some 60 percent of which is estimated to come from hydropower generation, according to The Washington Post. Low water levels have pushed the cash-strapped and secretive country to paralyzing electricity shortages.

“There is no doubt that there is a serious water shortage in this country, which obviously also affects electricity generation,” a resident of Pyongyang told the Post, under the condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution from the Kim regime.

North Korea has been here before. A 2014 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights estimated that a severe drought-induced famine during the mid-1990s resulted in 600,000 to 2.5 million deaths. Further, the commission faulted “actions and omissions by the DPRK and its leadership have generated and aggravated” starvation and malnutrition in the country. This time around, climate change may be a factor, too, as governments from Pakistan and Syria to Brazil and even the United States battle historic dry spells that have destabilized markets and raised tempers among their populations.

“The drought conditions have worsened the already poor state of affairs,” Simone Pott, the spokeswoman for the German aid food agency Welthungerhilf, one of the few international aid organizations let into the secretive nation, told German news agency Deutsche Welle. “And it has also overwhelmed the state’s food apparatus. I believe the North Korean leadership has realized that the situation has deteriorated to such a level that it will not be able to solve the problem without outside support.” (A State Department spokesman said he is “not aware of any such plans” to provide additional humanitarian assistance to North Korea.)

Ironically enough, Kim’s struggling agriculture and serial blackouts might be buffered by a young, underground economy that sprung up in response to that last major drought. According to Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a U.S.- and Seoul-backed NGO, “the market became the primary source of food for ordinary North Koreans outside the ruling elite, and as food markets gradually grew to encompass a broader range of goods and services, the market mind-set and profit motive spread throughout North Korean society.”

Because of these new markets, or jangmadang, as they are known, Kim’s captive nation no longer fully relies on the government for assistance and food aid. “Today’s North Korean economy is essentially disguised capitalism—low-level trade hiding in the shadows or private businesses wearing masks of state-socialism,” Sokeel Park of LiNK told Reuters.