New Space Station Photos Show North Korea at Night, Cloaked in Darkness

North Korea's isolation is visible in new satellite photos that show the energy-bankrupt country at night.

This night image of the Korean Peninsula shows that North Korea is almost completely dark compared to neighboring South Korea and China.


Since the mid-1990s, when fuel stopped flowing from the defunct Soviet Union to North Korea, the famously hermetic country has descended into darkness.

Newly released photos taken from the International Space Station last month reveal just how energy bankrupt North Korea has become. The photos, and a time-lapse video of the region, show the country as almost completely black, in contrast to the bright lights of neighbors like South Korea and Japan. (See related, "North Korea: Nuclear Ambition, Power Shortage.")

In South Korea, each person consumes 10,162 kilowatt hours of power a year. North Koreans each use just 739. Other than several small spots of light, including the brightly illuminated capital of Pyongyang, the country just about blends in with the surrounding black ocean.

Satellites have traditionally been the best tools for observing North Korea; they capture detailed views from far beyond sealed borders. Starting in 1948 with Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un, the country has shunned most of the world.

The North Korean government has refused offers of food and energy aid in exchange for a commitment to curtailing its nuclear energy ambitions. International inspectors have been denied entry, which has resulted in increasingly harsh sanctions led in large part by the United States and South Korea. China remains the staunchest of the north's few allies.

In her 2009 book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick described the effect darkness has on culture.

Streets become too dark for people to walk, limiting social interactions outside of daytime work hours. No one can watch TV or consume the limited amount of media allowed by the government.

Still, some parts of North Korea never go dark. Several government buildings, as well as Kim Jong Un's personal palace, stay lit at all times. Also illuminated around the clock: the famous 560-foot (171-meter) Juche Tower at the center of Pyongyang. It stands as a lonely symbol of nationalism and self-reliance, whatever the cost.