While the world worries about North Korea primarily as an instigator of nuclear war, the country may be quietly conducting some advanced research into the use of algae for food and biofuel, and the lessons it learns could serve us all well.
With crippling economic sanctions constraining its actions in many areas, North Korea might seem to be out of options for taking care of its citizens’ needs, but the country is far more developed and resilient than most people might think. Based on comparisons of past and present satellite photos in a couple of specific areas, it looks like North Korea may have hit on some solutions that other countries aren’t pursuing due to their own inertia and political corruption.
The projects in question go back to the 1980s, when North Korea did its best to revitalize some 300,000 hectares of tideland for agricultural use. Later, in the early 2000s, historical photos show that the country had multiple open ponds and algae-growth raceways in place.
Though the purpose of the ponds was not always clear, the logical assumption is that they would have been for water control and use as high-nutrient feedstock and food supplements for rural areas. The 1994-1998 famine that occurred in the country may, in fact, have been handled to a large extent with food extracted from those ponds.
According to satellite data, it appears that North Korea has expanded its exploration of larger-scale algae production both outside of Wonsan and in a much larger facility at the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex. While the land that appears to be under development at Namhung – only eight hectares – is low, there are some other visible parts of the site that suggest that far more is going on. There are what could very likely be greenhouses in the form of transparent hangar-shaped structures. Such structures could be protecting the algae from contamination. They could also be keeping the algae warmer, to allow for its year-round production out of the facility.
Keeping the algae clean suggests that at least one major use of it is for food.
Considering that option, calculations show that the current nine sites already visible from above would be able to produce some 2,851 tons of biomass with a nutritional content of about 1,425 tons.
Biofuel is a second option for the same resource. According to a recent analysis based on the aerial photos of all such sites in North Korea, there appear to be a total of 115 hectares of such algae production sites in the country. The biomass that could be produced there calculates out to be equal to 570 tons of oil, for a total of 4,076 barrels of oil produced per year from the relatively small site.
While the current biomass is far less than the 17,000 barrels of oil needed by North Korea per day, it is a good start, and production could certainly be scaled up.
However, this is all just speculation. North Korea has not yet revealed exactly what it is doing with the ponds.
When the truth of what these ponds are for is finally disclosed, it may just prove the old adage “Necessity is the mother of invention.” North Korea is definitely dealing with a need for food and fuel, and it may just have prodded its rulers into trying something that could be a positive lesson for the rest of the world.