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US builds political bridge to North Korea with wind

Both the United States and North Korea had to work hard to overcome the barriers of suspicion and fear before a small wind turbine project donated by a US foundation to North Korea could be successfully completed.

The winds of change could be starting to sweep North Korea, albeit only gently. Following the arrival of seven small wind turbines from the US last autumn, the non-profit California group behind the politically inspired project is also planning more energy activity in the famine ravaged country. The wind project is the first non-governmental development by an American group in North Korea, one of the most politically isolated countries in the world. The small turbines are providing electricity for 20 homes, a medical clinic and a kindergarten. Doctors can now refrigerate medicine, farmers can get electric pumps to work, and there are fluorescent lights in the kindergarten reliably for the first time since the country's economy and electric system declined.

Not surprisingly, press coverage has been substantial. In the US, articles have appeared in California newspapers and on national public television and radio. Wire services have also carried stories about the ground-breaking project, first publicised about a year ago. At that time, it was expected to involve a single turbine (Windpower Monthly, May 1998). The organiser of the project, the non-profit Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, says it hopes to return this month to check in on the turbines and to perhaps add a solar cell to take the system off-grid. All small-scale generating technologies, both non-renewable and renewable, including wind, are being considered for the expansion, says Nautilus' Peter Hayes.

The small 11.5 kW wind plant, which consists of four Whisper units, one Bergey and one Windseeker, was electrified on October 5 after being erected by hand in cabbage fields near the village of Unhi-ra by a bi-national team from the US and North Korea. Construction took five weeks. About 50 North Korean engineers, technicians and labourers were also involved. The project, which is ultimately expected to cost some $400,000, was backed by the W Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Planning and building the wind project has clearly helped create and strengthen the fragile links between the West and North Korea, most of which is off-limits to outsiders. "The North Koreans wanted this project to succeed," notes Hayes. "We were allowed to film video and take photos almost without restraint in a highly militarised zone. We went into households and conducted detailed interviews and physical surveys of the use of energy in the village economy."

Before the project installation, the North Koreans had visited the US, to tour wind and solar plants in California and Colorado, visit the National Renewable Energy laboratory, the Department of Energy and the World Bank, which has since conducted its first ever trip to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. The demonstration project required unusual steps, because of its political sensitivity. The US has had no diplomatic relations with North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Any US work there is limited in size and scope by the American government, as well as by North Korea. It must be licensed at the US end, and is carefully monitored at the other end, both politically and as it went in the ground. The overall project, because any such work is so sensitive politically, also had to be important enough symbolically to get co-operation between the governments-yet also innocuous and unthreatening to both. It was approved after two years of negotiation partly because it is in keeping with the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework aimed at ending North Korea's program of nuclear weapons.

Through hoops

The turbine towers were made in South Korea, had to be shipped to the US and then back to North Korea to avoid forbidden direct shipment. The only crane large enough for unloading ships, two hours from the capital Pyongyang, was not working. And once the South Korean parts arrived, their names were painted over to hide their origin. Even US newspapers that had been used for packing were discarded as "unsuitable" politically.

"The villagers were leery, maybe a little afraid-Americans are sort of cast as the evil princes there," commented Nautilus' renewables expert Jim Williams recently. "It must have been jarring to see representatives of this society bringing light." Electricity needs in rural North Korea are extremely high, says Nautilus. The country's economy is collapsing, and the electric grid is probably operating at 50% capacity. Power is often only available regionally and intermittently and with a wildly fluctuating voltage, says Hayes. In addition, even on a per capita basis, power needs are relatively high, he says. For example, electrical equipment is old, so it is inefficient. The village itself, on the western shore about 30 miles north of Nampo City, is in one of the less poor areas of the country. Even so it did not have power, in part because of the ruptured electric system and also because it had been hit hard by a tidal wave in 1997.

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