The easing of 50-year-old US sanctions against North Korea could soon result in an entirely fresh batch of hydro power projects. The country is said to have some 42 major hydro plants with a total installed capacity of 4500MW. Much of this is now thought to need urgent refurbishment following severe siltation and mechanical damage.

It is thought that no new hydro capacity will be needed until after 2005, but this would depend in part on progress with the construction of two modern 1000MW nuclear plants and developments at the Chinese-Russian-North Korean Tumen river economic development scheme. Although projects would initially require multi-lateral finance or guarantees, most observers expect this would be available once Pyongyang officially agrees to come in from the cold.

Such an event seems increasingly likely. The present push to rescue North Korea from itself is being spearheaded by the US, but South Korea, Japan, Australia, and even Pyong-yang’s staunch ally China, plus other countries, are joining in.

North Korea is increasingly keen to rejoin the world. The present chain of events began when the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union robbed North Korea of its main aid and trade partner. Consequently the North’s economy has shrunk every year since 1990 by anywhere from 7.7% in 1992, to 1.1% in 1998, according to data from South Korea.

Power-wise, according to the US-based Nautilus Institute, this has meant that total power generation has contracted from 46TWh in 1990 to around 24TWh in 1996, the most recent year for which reasonable estimates exist.

During this period, the primary energy consumption ratio (hydro:coal) shifted from roughly 45:55 in 1990 to 17:83. Consequently hydro generation shrank from some 21TWh in 1990 to 4TWh in 1996, from an available plant base of 4500MW and around 1000MW, respectively.

The balance of 3500MW is thought to have been lost to damage, mainly siltation but perhaps including mechanical failure, from 1995 and 1996 floods. However, a further 3000MW of new hydro capacity was supposed to have been under construction at that time.

Today anywhere from 3000MW to 6000MW of hydro capacity needs either refurbishing or completing by 2005 in a country where per capita electricity consumption per year is around 625kWh.

The significance of the US move is that it first opens North Korea to two-way US (and hence other Western) trade and transport links. Second, as these combine with existing similar South Korean and Japanese moves, demand for power in North Korea will grow.

Clearly, the first priority would be to refurbish and complete existing power plant of all types. If this is done, North Korea would have a nominal installed capacity of over 10,000MW which would likely be sufficient through to 2005.

In addition, South Korea is building two 1000MW nuclear power stations financed by a global consortium of South Korea, Japan, the US and the EC. If these are completed, and especially if they are used to meet domestic consumption rather than exports to the South, they will push any other new plant requirement even further into the future.