North Korea: Nukes or Kilowatts?

Muzzammil Muhammad Shittu
November 12, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017

Fig. 1: North Korea and it's neighbors at night, July 2012. NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using VIIRS Day-Night Band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. (Courtesy of NASA)

The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea is among the world's last genuine pariah states, geopolitically isolated from most states, and with a population largely barred from ever leaving the country's borders. This status has made the country something of an enigma, whose inner functioning and reality still, beyond rather broad strokes, remain uncertain to those outside its borders. This enigmatic effect is accented by the seeming irrationality of North Koreas Kim dynasty, who have governed the country as a dictatorship for three generations, and since its emergence from Cold War proxy politics. This irrationality stems from the eccentricities of the Kim family cult of personality, to features of the North Korean state which represent real and serious threats to the international system. Chief among these is North Korea's missile arsenal, and its development of nuclear capacities for use therein.

Missile development is of clear import to the state. North Korea spends a larger share of its GDP, around 25%, on its military than any other nation on Earth. [1] In 2016, this share represented around $13 billion, a large sum, especially when taken in consideration of the poverty in which most North Koreans live. One key factor which contributes to this poverty is North Korea's epileptic electricity supply. This reality is even visible from space, with North Korea pitch black, and made visible only by lights on its borders with China and South Korea in night-time images of the region. The opportunity cost here, what North Korea forsakes by spending so much on its military, is significant and quantifiable. It may, perhaps, be more easily understood if compared through a consideration of what North Korea's reality might be if it spent its military budget on electrification instead.

For simplification, this consideration will assume that military spending has constituted 25% of the North Koreas GDP since 1999, and that the CIA World Factbook's figures with regards to the North Korean GDP and power generation are accurate. We will also assume that money spent on the military would be able to have been totally transferred to electrification, an assumption largely dependent on the availability of the required expertise. Considering the relatively high level of missile development the country has achieved, this availability may be considered quite likely. To make the comparison in terms of electricity generation, we will use the U.S. cost for the generation of one megawatt hour of electricity from coal, around $100. [2] Using these assumptions, we may calculate North Korea's total spending on its military, from 1999 to 2016, as $81.5 billion.

How would North Korea have fared if this money had been spent on energy instead? Given our assumptions, from 1999 to 2016, the country could have generated 815 million megawatt hours (815 billion kilowatt hours) of electricity from coal, or around 4.5 million megawatt hours (4.5 billion kilowatt hours) per year. Per capita, this would be around 177 kilowatt hours per year. This would increase electricity generation in North Korea by 13%, and from 1347 kilowatt hours per capita per year to around 1500.

This is, by all means, a modest increase. This comparison, however, may not capture the myriad geopolitical benefits North Korea might accrue from a shift from investment in its missile systems to new investment in energy. For one, a movement away from the militarism which has defined the state would likely be rewarded by the international community through trade deals, sanctions relief and other efforts to support the economy of a North Korea willing to enter this community, such as those Iran enjoyed following its 2015 landmark nuclear accord. [3]

Why, then, does the North Korean investment in its missiles continue? Many potential reasons exist. One which is somewhat supported by recent history relates to power and the Kim family's need to effectively maintain it in North Korea. The last two decades have featured the abandonment of WMD development by dictatorial regimes once interested in such weapons, such as Muammar Gaddafi's in Libya and Saddam Hussein's in Iraq, often followed by the Western-backed overthrow of these leaders and those leaders' brutal deaths in the process. The Kim family, seeing these events, might have grown far more concerned with the control of power in North Korea than in the country's development, geopolitical status, and social wellbeing. [4] This simple desire for self-survival might motivate and explain much of the irrationality with which the DPRK is characterized. North Korean threats of nuclear war, for the fact of the uncertainty they create, might serve to deter Western plots against the Kim dynasty's rule. These threats also reverberate strongly through the democratic societies of the countries which the DPRK perceives as its biggest threats, as voters, themselves made uncertain by North Korea's irrationality, might tend towards candidates presenting low-risk approaches to the conflict, as opposed to those which might escalate to outright war. That the North Korean people have experienced great suffering under the Kim dynasty might contribute further to this need, for the very real possibility of insurrection and revolt in a population largely neglected by its government. The pervasive cult of personality which has been constructed around the dynasty might serve to deter these domestic risks by inflating the persona of the Kims, and intimidating those who might seek to oppose them.

© Muzzammil Muhammad Shittu. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "North Korea Spends About a Third of Income on Military: Group," Reuters, 18 Jan 11.

[2] "Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2017," U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 2017.

[3] "Iran Nuclear Deal: Key Details, "BBC News, 15 Oct 17.

[4] S. Evans, "The Saddam Factor in North Korea's Nuclear Strategy," BBC News, 15 Oct 17.