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DONG Yong-Sueng

South Korean Electricity to Kaesong

DONG Yong-Sueng

Apr. 1, 2005

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On May 14, 1948, North Korea unilaterally cut off electric power it was supplying to South Korea after talks on electric charges broke down. Almost 57 years since then, South Korea has started to provide electricity to Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea on March 16, 2005 . This represents a historical event in the history of Korea's partition.

The development marks the end of an era that began in 1948. At that time, the North and South were producing approximately 1,520 and 190 megawatts of electric power, respectively. The South contributed approximately 12% of the peninsula's total output, while depending on the North for over 60% of its needs at that time. When the North cut the power, it blacked out the entire South and created resentment.

More than half a century later, roles have reversed. The South is the greater producer of electricity. It has begun supplying 15 megawatts of power to 15 South Korean companies operating within the 90,000 square-meter industrial park during the initial phase of development. The power runs along cable supported by approximately 200 poles running between Munsan, South Korea to a receiving facility in the North. Once the 3.3 million square-meter industrial park has been fully expanded, a substation will be installed inside the park to receive 150 megawatts of power.

The supply of electricity to North Korea is a meaningful event. The North officially requested a total supply of 2,000 megawatts at the fourth round of cabinet-level talks in Pyongyang in December 2000, beginning with an initial delivery of 500 megawatts. In April of 2001, when Lim Dong Won, President Kim Dae Jung's special envoy, visited Pyongyang the North asked that the South supply power to Hwanghae Province . The North has continued to request more power at every cabinet-level talk since then.

North Korea is well aware of the effect the power cut in 1948 had on the South. Their continued requests for power lead to two implications. Firstly, the fact that the North is willing to depend on the South for electricity means the North may be particularly susceptible to energy needs. Secondly, this may thereby increase the South's influence. As the North is already notably depending on the South for food, the South could have more influence than China has over North Korea. The call for energy also means the North may be facing serious shortages of electricity.

The North has recently focused on the construction of power plants, but it seems to have little effect. North Korea's system was such that electric power was the biggest source of energy until the mid 1970s. However, their electricity generating capacity substantially deteriorated since the 1980s. It has been unable to invest in new power resources or even replace obsolete equipment in the past 20 years, making clear that North Korea would eventually face an energy shortage.

When the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework suspended the construction of a nuclear plant at Yongbyon, it not only disrupted North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, but resulted in an enormous setback to its ability to generate electricity as well. Also, the light-water reactor construction has been temporarily interrupted since the North broke from the Geneva Agreed Framework and withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Thus, North Korea faces a fundamental limitation in establishing energy generation plans. At such a time, the North's request to the South for electric support and electric supply to the Kaesong complex carries an important meaning.

The power supplied to the complex is not exactly what the North previously requested. The North cannot directly use the power because South Korea sends it straight to a temporary substation inside the Kaesong industrial park. Yet, if the complex expands to 3.3 million square-meters, the South will have to make changes. A stand-alone power plant should be built within the complex to immediately generate electricity. Building the complex's own power plant should also be considered in case the industrial park expands up to 6.6 million square-meters in the future.

However, South Korea could not make such a move unilaterally. Electric power is a strategic good controlled by the Wassenaar Agreement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies. The US Trading with the Enemy Act and Export Administration Regulations (EAR) are even tougher restrictions with respect to this matter. For such a power plant to be built, the issue regarding a Nuclear North Korea must first be resolved.

The choice is up to North Korea. It declared itself a nuclear state to ensure regime security. Oddly enough, this could also result in weakening the regime by magnifying its energy shortage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is totally up to the North to free itself of such contradiction. The fact that the North has started to receive electric supply provides a window of opportunity. The North may choose conventional sources of electric power over nuclear energy. At this point, the international community needs to be prudent. Over time and with a little room to maneuver, North Korea may arrive at the right decision on its own.

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