By Kim Soobok (Translation and edits by Hyun Lee)
Continued from Part 3
On my visit to the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex in 2012, I learned about the place as merely a production plant for chemical fertilizers and plastic products. The total number of people at the plant at the time was 12,000, but they said only a fraction of them — 3000 to 4000 — were workers at the plant and the rest did “other work.” Back then, I didn’t understand nor did I know enough to question what that means. Only after learning about the methods North Korea was introducing to encourage local food self-sufficiency did I understand that the remaining 8000 people not directly involved in production at the chemical complex were part of what they call “rear operation.” They are responsible for the reproductive work of raising pigs, chicken and ducks as well as growing rice and vegetables to feed the workers at the plant and their families.
At the construction site of the Chongchon River Multi-tiered Power Plant, too, “rear operation” workers raise pigs and chickens and research the best way to grow fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in the vegetable garden while loud construction clamor can be heard on the other side of the plant. The “rear operation” team is responsible for the regenerative work of feeding and sustaining the workers constructing the power plant.
Similarly, all units of North Korean society — cooperative farms, factories, businesses, military units, universities, large construction sites, apartment complexes, etc. — have “rear operation” teams that raise livestock and grow fresh vegetables to autonomously take care of their own food needs. And most have adopted an organic farming method called the “closed-loop production system,” an energy-efficient way of producing food by recycling waste to minimize resource inputs.
The best example of the closed-loop production system I witnessed was at the Satellite Scientists Residential Complex in Pyongyang — a 1.3 square kilometer complex of residential facilities for scientists involved in North Korea’s satellite launch program. It was built in 2014 adjacent to the State Academy of Sciences and is dedicated to the country’s scientists in appreciation of their service and to encourage high-tech research and innovation.
One thousand households of scientists reside in twenty-four apartment buildings, and each building has a communal vegetable garden where the residents grow vegetables and harvest what they need for their households. The complex also has four greenhouses that grow tomatoes, cucumbers, chives, and other fresh vegetables all year long.
On my visit there in May 2015, I was delighted to find that the person in charge of the greenhouses at the Satellite Scientists Residential Complex is Ryang Hae-ok, the wife of the great grandson of the renowned North Korean chemist Ri Sung-gi (see the introduction to this series for a brief description of the life and work of Ri Sung-gi). When I told Ryang that Ri’s work on developing the Juche textile vinalon is what had inspired my own journey of studying North Korea’s science and technology, she was overjoyed and gave me a warm welcome and a personal tour of the greenhouse.
Inside the greenhouse is a pig pen, behind which is a small pond with nutrient-rich plants they call “protein grass.” Mudfish grow between the roots of the floating protein grass. Fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, which in turn act as a harvestable filter system, cleaning the water so it can be continuously recycled. The grass is a protein-rich source that is mixed into the feed for the pigs. People catch and eat the mudfish and feed the rest to the pigs. Pig waste and vegetable scraps are fermented to make methane gas used for cooking. The waste of one become food for another, and in this way, waste is recycled in a circular, sustainable system.
Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute
The Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute, a part of the National Academy of Agricultural Science, is a massive hydroponics greenhouse located on the outskirts of Pyongyang.
In 2008-2009, North Korea, confident in its ability to increase grain production after finally overcoming the Arduous March period and normalizing the production of coal-based chemical fertilizer, set a new national goal of increasing fresh vegetables and fruit in the nation’s diet. To increase fruit production, it built the 2450-acre Daedong River Orchard and the 7350-acre Gosan Orchard.
To increase vegetable production, the country established the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute as a model farm to research and develop cutting-edge technology in vegetable cultivation and share its achievements with cooperative farms throughout the country.
It took the combined force of instructors and students of Kim Il-sung University and the construction unit of the North Korean army just one year to build the institute as a state-of-the-art research facility. The institute, which opened its doors in March 2011, produces fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, radish and lettuce all year round. The 600,000 square-meter building houses a 300,000 square-meter greenhouse and a 100,000 square-meter hydroponics greenhouse, as well as a state-of-the-art biology lab. A coal-fired boiler was initially used to heat the greenhouse, but the institute now uses geothermal, wind and solar energy to maintain optimal temperatures throughout the greenhouses without relying on fossil fuel.
The institute conducts research on improving the quantity and quality of the country’s crops. Its stated goal is to increase crop yields to 1200 tons per acre.
Some exemplary research the institute is currently conducting include:
- Cultivation of tomatoes and annual vegetables in the form of a tree that can produce for as long as ten years;
- Cultivation and acclimation of new varieties of nutrient-rich vegetables, such as yellow chard, parsley, garlic-scallions (combination of garlic and scallion), blue ginseng, and “protein vegetable” (lettuce-shaped leafy vegetable rich in protein);
- Greenhous science, such as optimal temperatures and sunlight exposure, watering technology and early nutrient content analysis of vegetables.
The hydroponics greenhouse at the institute uses grain husks as the growing medium to aquafarm a variety of vegetables. More than ten types of plant nutrients are distributed throughout the greenhouse through a system of pipes, and the institute researches optimal nutrients for different varieties. By cutting out the need for large tracts of land and minimizing the space needed for farming, hydroponics makes automation and farm management simpler.
Greenhouse and hydroponic cultivation technology studied and developed by the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute is already being replicated at vegetable specialty farms across Pyongyang, such as the Chonnam Vegetable Cooperative Farm in Hyongjesan District, Daesong Vegetable Cooperative Farm in Daesong District, Bongsu Vegetable Cooperative Farm in Mangyongdae District, and the Jangchon Vegetable Cooperative Farm in Sadong District. It is also spreading to other provinces, such as the Hungnam Vegetable Specialty Farm in South Hamgyong Province, as well as to Chungjin, Nampo City, Hoeryong City, Shinyang County and Onsung County.
North Korea established the Natural Energy Research Center at the State Academy of Sciences with the goal of reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuel and increasing the development and use of renewable energy. As stated in Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year Address, the country aims to solve its energy question mainly through hydroelectric power but also through the increased use of wind, geothermal, solar and biomass energy.
After years of research and development, the country has now begun to adopt the use of renewable energy on a nationwide scale. For example, it is recycling methane gas from pig farms and ranches to generate power and providing hydraulic ram water pumps to farming areas to allow them to irrigate farmlands without electricity. It is also researching ways to use tidal energy, and an increasing number of young scientists are choosing renewable energy as their field of study.
North Korea utilizes solar power in two main ways: to heat water through the use of solar water systems, and to convert it into electricity through the use of solar panels.
Solar water systems were first introduced in the country at the Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair in 2012 and have since become very popular nationwide. They are installed on sun-exposed rooftops to heat water, which is then distributed throughout the building for household use as well as for heating purposes.
Solar panels are also in great demand. They are outfitted with sun trackers to enable the panels to rotate according to the sun’s direction and increase efficiency.
Production plants that used to rely on the state’s electric grid now produce their own electricity by converting solar energy through the use of solar panels. They also air-condition and heat their facilities with geothermal water and are now sending surplus energy back to the national power grid. A parallel generation system whereby factories generate their own electricity alongside the state’s utility grid allows energy to flow in both directions.
Pyongyang Mobile Communication Management Center
At the Pyongyang Mobile Communication Management Center, solar panels crowd the external walls of two buildings. They generate an average of 240 kilowatts of electricity per day, or 84,400 kilowatts per year, and power the entire facility’s operations, including the lighting, equipment, the more than one hundred computers at the center’s science and technology dissemination room, as well as an indoor gym and cafeteria.
On the roof of the Pyongyang Mobile Communication Management Center is a greenhouse that produces an abundance of fresh cucumbers, crown daisies and other vegetables. Heated water from the solar water heating system is cooled to an optimal temperature then used to water the greenhouse as well as a fishery. On sunny days, the facility is able to power all its operations through solar energy without relying on the state utility grid.
(Pyongyang Mobile Communication Management Center | Video published April 4, 2018 DPRK Today)
Kim Jongsuk Pyongyang Silk Mill
The Kim Jongsuk Pyongyang Silk Mill is equipped with solar panels with sun trackers and wind turbines that produce 30 kilowatts of electricity per hour, or more than 10,000 kilowatts per year. The lighting for the entire facility, as well as its history room, science and technology dissemination center, computer center, cultural center, dormitories and daycare center are all entirely powered by the energy generated by the facility.
(Kim Jongsuk Pyongyang Silk Mill | Video published Mar 13, 2018 DPRK Today)
Samcholli Light Fixture Factory
The Samcholli Light Fixture Factory produces LED lights for nursing homes and childcare centers, as well as the Mirae Scientists Street. The factory is powered by energy generated through sun-tracking solar panels. It produces hundreds of kilowatts of electricity per day, i.e. tens of thousands of kilowatts per year, and transfers surplus energy to the state utility grid.
(Samcholli Light Fixture Factory | Video published May 2, 2018 DPRK Today)
According to a feature article on renewable energy in the June 11 edition of the state-owned newspaper Rodong Sinmun, the Sinhwe Cooperative Farm in Samsu County, a remote valley surrounded by rugged mountains in Ryanggang Province, has installed solar panels on the tops of all residential and public buildings and generates enough electricity to power all the lighting and TV sets, as well as run a multimedia classroom in its school. The example set by the cooperative farm is now being replicated in all other villages throughout the county.
The same Rodong Sinmun edition also announced that the Pyongsong Automated Equipment Factory, which produces wind turbines, is now developing hybrid solar and wind power generating systems that combine the use of solar and wind energies to generate electricity. The Danchon Mushroom Farm, according to the same paper, has already combined over a hundred solar panels with small and large wind turbines to create an energy-generating system that synthesizes the two types of generators.
Wind energy is a popular source of renewable energy in North Korea and is widely used for pumping water.
The Pyongsong Automated Equipment Factory, which mass-produces wind turbines, used to only produce small turbines with an output of 1.5 kilowatts, but it now produces 100- and 250-kilowatt turbines. The North Korean government is investing in developing the wind energy sector, and many production plants are also autonomously building their own wind turbines.
The Ryongnam Shipyard in Nampo is a pioneer in using renewable energy and has been powered by wind energy for more than a decade.
According to documents exhibited at the Natural Energy Research Center in North Korea, the country’s long-term goal is to generate fifteen percent of the country’s electricity through wind energy and increase the generation of electricity through renewable energy to five million kilowatts by 2044.
According to a 2015 North Korean brochure for potential investors at the Wonsan-Mount Kumgang International Tourist Zone, the total investment needed to construct a wind power plant to provide electricity for the Tongchon and Mount Kumgang areas is USD 39 million. North Korea proposes to construct the project in two years and finance it through a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) plan in which a foreign investor would operate the plant for ten years to recover its investment then transfer its ownership to the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone.
The sector of renewable energy in which North Korea has made the greatest stride is geothermal heat.
The Huichon Ryonha General Machinery Plant in Chagang Province was one of the first in the country to install a geothermal heating system. In 2010, as the entire country pushed forward to pull itself up and out of the austere Arduous March period of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the plant was developing a mass production system for state-of-the-art computer numerical control (CNC) machine-tools to enable all basic economic sectors, such as steel, fertilizer, textile, chemicals and food processing to modernize their production. At the instruction of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to make sure they not only modernize the machinery but also turn their workplace into a state-of-the-art facility, the plant engineers outfitted the plant with a geothermal heating system. The entire plant, seven times the size of a football field and located in the high mountains of the northern part of the country, is now heated through renewable energy and is comfortably warm even in the dead of winter.
North Korea is also stepping up research for more efficient and economic ways to harvest geothermal water. In the past, the water source had to be twenty meters underground and fifteen degrees celsius to be accessed, but now, with improved technology, it can be accessed even in the coldest regions like Samjiyon County at the foot of Mount Baekdu, where the water source only reaches four degrees celsius, to heat places like the Samjiyon Schoolchildren’s Palace.
All newly-constructed buildings in North Korea are equipped with geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems. For example, the Ryugyong Recreation Center, a modern five-story megaplex in Pyongyang, the 10,000 square feet greenhouse at the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute, the massive Science and Technology Center, and all newly-built childcare centers, nursing homes and schools are heated and air-conditioned through geothermal technology. And geothermal energy is now being combined with solar and wind energy to further increase efficiency and power.
According to a 2016 report in Meari, a North Korean online news site, factories in North Korea are now mass-producing geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems that can use geothermal water only three meters underground.
A June 11, 2018 article in Rodong Sinmun describes the North Hwanghae Province Communication Authority’s plan for the construction of a new office building and its discussion on whether it should install a coal-fired boiler as it had done in the past or try something it had never done before by adopting geothermal technology. The article caught my attention as it concerned an agency not in the capital of Pyongyang but in a remote area of the country with no experts on renewable energy. After researchers at the North Hwanghae Provincial High-Tech Product Manufactory consulted scientific research centers around the country for the most efficient solution, according to the article, the county opted for a hybrid geothermal and biomass system.
Methane Gas Recycling and Hydropower
North Korea also encourages cooperative farms to recycle methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is produced by the biological decomposition of organic matter. The Jangchon Vegetable Cooperative Farm in Pyongyang, for example, recycles methane gas from decomposed food and animal waste for household heating and cooking. When I visited the solar-powered greenhouse at the Unha Scientists Residential Complex, I also saw them recycling methane gas from food scraps and pig manure for cooking purposes.
According to a June 11, 2018 article in Rodong Sinmun, the Unjong-ri Cooperative Farm in Chagang Province, a mountainous area where most of its farmland is on slopes, has figured out a way to irrigate its farmland without the need for electricity. In the past, pumping water to slopeland was difficult as it requires considerable electricity, and therefore the region’s crop yields had historically been poor. To solve this problem, the cooperative farm sent its workers to the Natural Energy Research Center at the State Academy of Sciences to study the operation principle and technology of hydraulic ram water pumps, powered by hydropower without the need for electricity. Through the use of this technology, the farm is now able to irrigate its slopelands and nurseries solely through hydropower.
Dissemination of Scientific Innovation
In a capitalist society, scientific innovation is a commodity used to maximize profit and gain an edge over competitors. Capitalists sue each other to prevent competitors from copying their innovations and force consumers to buy their technology. In North Korea, it’s just the opposite: the central government actively encourages people to copy each other’s new innovations.
“Learn by following, outpace by following” is the slogan for North Korea’s so-called “experience-based education movement,” widely promoted as a matter of national policy. All production facilities in North Korea and the country’s 3900 agricultural and specialty cooperatives have a “scientific technology dissemination department,” where workers are able to study scientific and technological advances related to their field of work and discuss how to adapt them according to their particular conditions. The Grand People’s Study Hall, the country’s central library, and the Science and Technology Hall in Pyongyang disseminate the latest advances in science and technology to the dissemination departments at production facilities across the country. Through the intranet-based remote education network, they publicize research results from the State Academy of Sciences, Kimchaek University of Technology and Kim Il-sung University, as well as new innovations and exemplary case studies gathered from production facilities around the country.
Another way the country encourages workers and farmers to adopt new innovation and technology is by showcasing model factories and farms as case studies for them to learn from and follow. The Kimchaek University of Technology and the State Academy of Sciences integrate the latest advancements in science and technology and best practices from production sites across the country to construct cutting edge facilities in various fields. Among them are the Pyongyang Vegetable Research Institute, Pyongyang Mushroom Factory, Jangchon Vegetable Specialty Farm, Pyongyang Catfish Farm, Pyongyang Tortoise Farm, and the Daedong River Orchard.
National museums, such as the Three Revolution Exhibition Hall and the Mirae Scientists Hall, feature exhibits on the model factories and farms for workers and farmers from across the country to see and study. In this way, model factories and farms are replicated in every region of the country in a span of just one to two years. This is one method of carrying out the national policy of “making the entire population experts in science and technology.”
Local and national expos that showcase the latest scientific developments are also held throughout the year. One example is the 33rd National Festival of Science and Technology recently held at the Three Revolutions Exhibition in Pyongyang. The two-week festival from April 23 to May 3, 2018 brought together twelve hundred people from five hundred factories, cooperatives and schools from across the country, each eager to display their technological achievements. The participants were selected through a highly competitive process from a pool of 13,500 groups totaling 107,000 scientists, technicians, doctorate candidates, youth, students, and workers, who showcased their innovations in local science fairs around the country. The scale of the festival and participant selection process alone give us a sense of just how much science and technology are embraced and celebrated in North Korea.
Science and Technology in the Service of the People
The following are statements that are frequently found in today’s North Korean media and are indicative of the emphasis on science and technology in the Kim Jong Un era:
Science and technology will lead the nation’s economic development, and the scientist’s blueprint will lead us to a bright future.
Science and technology are the engine behind the construction of a strong socialist nation.
In the spirit of the slogan, “Plant your feet on the ground and set your eyes on the world,” our goal is to turn the entire population into scientists and scientific thinkers.
Universities and research facilities should not just live off the national budget but become producers that create cutting-edge products based on their innovations and reinvest their proceeds to further technological development.
North Korea’s policy on science and technology in the Kim Jong Un era is clearly reflected in Kim’s speech before key officers of the Central Committee of the Workers Party in May 2013: “Let us achieve radical change in scientific and technological advancement to press ahead in the construction of a strong and prosperous nation.”
Having declared the completion of an effective nuclear deterrent to defend itself from U.S.’ military threats, North Korea now appears ready to shift its scientific talent and resources to another key aspect of its fight against U.S. aggression: building an economically robust and self-reliant nation to defy the labyrinth of U.S.-led sanctions. The country encourages its people to reject the thought that only highly-educated and skilled experts can be scientists and trains ordinary people — farmers, workers and youth — in the practice of applying reason and pursuing evidence-based innovation to improve their everyday condition.
Defying all western predictions of imminent collapse, the North Korean people have not only survived the crisis of the Arduous March period but made a stunning recovery through sheer grit and scientific ingenuity. When one goes to North Korea — if one ever has the opportunity — one can immediately sense that the entire society is abuzz with activity aimed at improving aspects of the people’s livelihood, such as food and housing. And the country is making remarkable progress in the energy sector. Through adherence to their philosophy of self-reliance and scientific advancements in the service of the people, they are determined, it seems, to show the world that it is possible to defy the stranglehold of the capitalist world order and create a sustainable alternative.
By Soobok Kim
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