How North Korea turns coal into gas, and what it might mean for sanctions

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Wall Street Journal has an interesting and thoroughly researched report out today, on North Korea’s use of a technique to synthetically produce synthetic fuels from coal:

China, North Korea’s longtime ally, has provided technology and expertise for the coal-conversion efforts, according to Chinese companies. One said in July that it is supplying a large coal gasifier designed to produce 40,000 cubic meters an hour of synthetic gas to an industrial zone north of Pyongyang.

That output alone would be enough to produce synthetic fuels equivalent to about 10% of North Korea’s annual imports of crude and refined oil in recent years, according to David Von Hippel, an expert on North Korea’s energy sector at the Nautilus Institute.

[…]

It has become cheaper in recent years—in part because of Chinese development of the technology—and remains viable for countries with abundant coal and few alternatives.

North Korea obtained German coal-gasification technology from the Soviets around the 1960s but did little to develop it, and became dependent on subsidized crude from Russia and China.

[…]

Crucially, coal gasification has helped provide raw materials to increase output of fertilizer and plastic sheeting for greenhouses, boosting food production, and enabled other industries to develop products such as steel alloys and pipes, experts said.

The technology is also now used in small-scale power plants to boost electricity supplies, according to footage broadcast by North Korean state television in November.

One Chinese company, Hebei Kaiyue Group, said on its website that seven officials from North Korea’s Academy of Sciences visited one of its facilities in June to study how it converts coal to methanol, ammonia and dimethyl ether, which can be used as a diesel alternative.

The large gasifier slated for the industrial zone north of Pyongyang was built by Yangmei Chemical Industry Machinery Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of one of China’s biggest coal companies; it has been completed but not yet transported to North Korea, as the Chinese awaited North Korean instructions, according to two people involved. The company declined to comment.

Full article/source:
North Korea Turns Coal Into Gas to Weather Sanctions
Jeremy Page
Wall Street Journal
2018-12-17

I have a brief quote in the story, basically saying that even if North Korea can only produce fairly moderate quantities of gasified, synthetic fuels through this technique, it could potentially be very significant for the economy as a whole. This is particularly true for transportation and industrial manufacturing. The former is crucial not only for the state-side of the economy, but also for the private sector (i.e.: markets and entrepreneurs).

When trying to asses whether North Korea can “weather” sanctions or not, it’s meaningful to remember that the economy as such is still, partially, recovering from the near-complete collapse of the 1990s. So the quantities needed to make a significant contribution to industrial production may not be that massive. All of this is a way of getting at, in absence of actual numbers, how much this coal gasification technique may matter for North Korea. Putting together whatever oil and fuel North Korea can get through smuggling, regular imports, non-commercial transfers from China, and coal gasification, North Korea is probably muddling through sanctions relatively well, and better than many would have expected a year or so ago, at least in some respects.

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