A satellite image taken on Jan. 30, 2014 shows North Korea in pitch darkness next to the brightly sparkling South. /Courtesy of NASA
Nighttime satellite images of North Korea suggest that the country’s economic conditions have slightly improved since a famous satellite photo that shows the country in pitch darkness next to the brightly sparkling South.
Kim Kyu-chul of the Korea Development Institute analyzed nighttime luminosity in North Korea based on satellite images from 1992 to 2013. “The North has brightened since 2000”, Kim said in a report published Monday.
The U.S. releases a report about nighttime brightness in the North measured by meteorological satellites every year, with each pixel representing an area of 0.86 sq.km. There was no change until 1999 if the baseline in 1992 is set at 100, but then the country brightened a little to reach a level of 170 in 2013.
“The analysis coincides with testimony from North Korean defectors that living conditions improved as open-air markets were springing up in the early 2000s”, Kim said.
Pyongyang, where about 13 percent of the North Korean population live, was the brightest area with 29 percent of the country’s entire nighttime luminosity.
Next came North Pyongan Province (15.7 percent), where trade with China is brisk, and Hwanghae Province (15.1 percent), where the joint Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex was still in operation in 2013. Remote Ryanggang Province was the darkest at a mere 2.2 percent.
“There still seems to be a wide gap between Pyongyang and the provinces”, Kim added.
In Pyongyang, the lights tell a more complicated story. In 1992, the whole of the city was lit up, but by 2002 the lights were only on downtown. By 2012, the capital and outlying areas were bright again. The mid-1990s were a time of severe famine.
Kaesong took up 13.3 percent nighttime luminosity in 2005, when South Korean businesses started to arrive, soaring to 19.4 percent in 2010, when they finished moving in. But the percentage had fallen to 12.9 percent in 2013, when relations deteriorated, the industrial park was temporarily closed and firms started giving up on the project.
Current photos would presumably show the area in darkness again since the industrial park was finally shut in 2016.
The scenic Mt. Kumgang area was also affected by inter-Korean relations. It accounted for zero percent of luminosity in 1992 and 1993 but rose after 1998, when package tours to the resort began.
But the percentage dropped to 2.1 percent in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was fatally shot by a North Korean soldier and tourists started avoiding the resort, and to less than one percent when the tours stopped in 2009.