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North Korea exploring sanctions-proof energy technologies

AP  |  Nampo (North Korea) 

Power-strapped is exploring two ambitious alternative sources tidal power and coal-based synthetic fuels that could greatly improve living standards and reduce its reliance on imports and vulnerability to sanctions.

Finding a lasting source that isn't vulnerable to sanctions has long been a top priority for North Korean officials. Leader used his New Year's address last month to call on the country to "radically increase the production of electricity" and singled out the as a "primary front in developing the self-supporting economy." For the longer-term, he stressed the importance of atomic, wind and tidal power.

Since further development of atomic is unlikely anytime soon, the power-scarce country is developing technology to "gasify" into substitute motor fuels. It also is looking into using huge sea barriers with to harness the power of the ocean's tides.

and hydropower are North Korea's The North imports nearly all of its and from Solar panels are visible just about everywhere, from urban balconies to rural farm buildings and military installations. Wind remains a very minor

The North's renewed focus on alternatives underscores what some foreign observers believe are two of its long-term best bets.

Kim's late father, Kim Jong Il, tried to get international support for developing nuclear power in the 1990s before the North ultimately opted instead for nuclear weapons. That brought some of the most intense sanctions ever applied by the against the country, making its even more precarious.

But is something has in abundance.

It's used to supply thermal power plants and factories, to heat homes and to make fertilizer and even a kind of cloth, called Vinylon. Slow-running, smoke-belching trucks that use a gasification process with firewood are common in the North Korean countryside. Coal isn't generally seen as a good because converting it to a liquid form is inefficient and expensive coal gasification was last used on a large scale in Nazi Germany to keep its cars and trucks moving.

Given options, it's a technology that appears to be paying off.

The output from just one gasifier unit reportedly destined for the North Sunchon Chemical Plant, north of Pyongyang, could yield amounting to about 10 percent of the North's recent petroleum supply, according to a recent study for the by and Peter Hayes, two of the foremost experts on the issue. The study cited as one of its sources a report from December that tracked the unit to a Chinese exporter.

The facility is believed to be a center of "C-1" technology, which uses coal to make a kind of gas used to produce synthetic fuels, and fertilizers.

Now that has reduced its coal imports from the North in line with the sanctions, there's more available for gasification.

"The project appears to provide a significant benefit to the DPRK, in terms of supplying fuels to compensate for petroleum product imports that run afoul of Security Council sanctions passed in the last two years, although the project will not completely replace all lost imports on its own," they wrote in the report.

DPRK is short for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The North's interest in also reflects a practical desire to exploit existing resources.

Glyn Ford, a former member of the with extensive experience with the North, said he has had several discussions with North Korean officials regarding tidal power and even helped arrange a study tour to a facility in the UK a decade ago. He said they have tried to invite experts to the North.

The country is perfectly situated for tidal power.

"The bulk of the Korean Peninsula's is a rich tidal power resource," said in a telephone interview with The AP. "There are some detailed studies of the potential in and the same resources are there to be exploited north of the Demilitarized Zone." The world's largest functioning tidal power plant is located near the South Korean city of It opened in 2011 and produces about enough power to support a city of 500,000.

has shown a strong penchant for mobilizing his million-man military on big projects. And the North has shown it can build something like a tidal power plant.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Thu, February 14 2019. 10:25 IST