It does not usually raise eyebrows when, in less than two years, more than 25 acres of open ponds are dug, irrigated, and cultivated with healthy and well-maintained algae in a very well-managed facility. After all, 25 acres has the potential to only produce the equivalent of 350-600 barrels of oil per year. Nonetheless, a new algal research facility just outside of Wonsan, North Korea, suggests growing interest in developing algae as a strategic resource to diversify sources of energy supplies and improve agricultural production, which could over time reduce the country’s vulnerability to sanctions.
The State of Algae Production
Algae is not normally thought of as a strategic resource. Maritime fishermen dread the algal bloom; it is commonly called pond scum and it can clog filters and drains. Nonetheless, algae, which can be an abundant source of nutrients and helpful in cleaning up pollution, is becoming a more common resource. It is not yet cost-effective to produce algae solely for fuel, so in most of the world it is not the primary motive for building facilities that grow algae; when it is grown, it is usually used to clean water at treatment plants. But algae could become a strategic resource for North Korea, which is isolated from sources of fuel and lacks sufficient nutrition or fertilizer. When algae is produced, it is often processed for its protein content and makes an excellent supplement, but the same algae can also contain approximately 20 percent lipids which can be processed into biofuels. And the oil and the nutrients can both be extracted from the same biomass.
North Korea’s adherence to the philosophy of Juche (self-reliance) often drives it to invest large amounts of capital on projects that would otherwise seem futile in a free market economy with global access—for example, it attempted in the early 1980s to reclaim and irrigate 300,000 hectares of tideland for agricultural use. Historical Google Earth satellite imagery shows numerous locations of open ponds and even raceways for algae growth dating back to the early 2000s.
It is likely these open ponds developed organically over time and the original purposes were water control and the production of fertilizer, feedstock and food supplement for rural areas, especially given the famine that had occurred from 1994-1998. But recently, these facilities have gotten more complex, whether the highly organized open ponds outside of Wonsan, or the less organized but almost equally as large facility around the Namhung Youth Chemical Plant.
Figure 1. Algae production at the Namhung Youth Chemical Plant.
While the total acreage in the vicinity of Namhung is estimated at only 20 acres, the facility has an interesting feature—the addition of transparent, low profile, hangar-like structures over some of the open ponds. These structures appear to be greenhouses, which will not only enable year-round production, but will also keep the algae clean, which is a strong indication that it is primarily intended for use as a food supplement.
What remains somewhat murky is whether or not these open ponds are being developed as a strategic resource. If this were the case, one clear indicator would be if algae growth was not a by-product or ancillary consequence of some other unrelated purpose, such as water treatment. While there is greater certainty that the primary purpose of the Namhung ponds is to grow algae, it is more difficult to determine the primary purpose of Wonsan facility solely from satellite imagery. However, it is reasonable to assume that if it were a water treatment facility, it is very likely doing a bad job, because the treated water is apparently dumped back into the river. This strongly suggests the Wonsan facility’s primary purpose is to grow algae.
The strategic value of the algae can be inferred from the total acreage of each site using industry averages to estimate the biomass produced per acre and the protein and lipid content of the biomass. The averages used here are 10 tons of biomass per acre per year with 50 percent protein and 20 percent lipid content. The conversion used for the number of barrels of oil equivalent to a ton of oil extracted from algae is 7.1475. With these figures, the total acreage of different sites already discovered through Google Maps has been totaled; from just these nine separate locations, approximately 4,075 barrels of oil could be produced each year.
Figure 2. Production capacity estimates for nine facilities.
These nine sites were selected because of strong indications that their primary purpose is algae production, and that the algae is being processed and utilized. This list is by no means comprehensive; there are many more and even larger open-ponds producing algae. But they have not been included in this assessment because they are located in rural areas and are of low quality. Furthermore, there are undoubtedly many open ponds or raceways producing algae awaiting discovery.
The CIA factsheet estimates that North Korea’s daily oil consumption is approximately 17,000 barrels (based on data from 2014). The potential oil produced by algae could meet 0.065 percent of the total requirements. This is a paltry number, but as previously noted, it does not include many acres of open ponds. Moreover, depending upon the strain and quality of production the yield can be as much as 75 percent higher. If there were just 100 times more acreage in production and being utilized, the oil yield could be 6.5 percent of North Korea’s 2014 estimated requirements for their entire economy. Additionally, this comparison does not take into consideration North Korea’s military requirements. The need for supporting the military and replenishing its strategic petroleum reserve is certainly below 17,000 barrels a day. Given the potential for algae-based oil production, a more thorough investigation is warranted of whether these facilities could in the future fulfill a national security requirement.
But algae has more strategic value than just oil, especially for a country that experienced a famine in the early 1980s that resulted in the death of an estimated 10 percent of the population. The protein and fatty acid content of the biomass is considered to be much more valuable; for the nine selected sites total production of 2,851 tons of biomass is possible, with a nutritional value of approximately 1,425.5 tons. This nutritional content can be vital to such an isolated population determined to maintain the Juche system. And it can also be used for fertilizer, which may explain the large number of open ponds located throughout the countryside and near farms. Agricultural runoff runs high in nitrogen and phosphorous, a nutrient for algae, but a pollutant when dumped in waterways.
Not enough attention has been given to the algae production of a country not known for its green policies. A population that suffers from high levels of hunger and poverty will often do whatever it takes to ease outside pressure and thwart further attempts at isolation. It is not surprising, therefore, that the North Korean government is developing thousands of rural open ponds producing algae and bigger and more sophisticated sites whose purpose increasingly looks like algae production. The purpose of that algae is not immediately clear, but it is a multipurpose resource that can be used to produce food, fertilizer, feedstock and fuel all from the same biomass. Such a resource could certainly have strategic value for North Korea and could, over time, mitigate the negative effects of sanctions both on the country’s energy supply and food security.
North Korea: A Strange Socialist Fortress, p. 135 by Hy-Sang Lee, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
“Country Comparison: Refined Petroleum Products,” Central Intelligency Agency, The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2246rank.html.