Is renewable energy a path to peace for the Korean peninsula?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 14 December 2018 14:13 GMT

A man uses his mobile phone next to an electric bicycle in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, October 8, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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North and South Korea could co-operate on boosting clean sources of power, paving the way to a nuclear-free future, experts say

South Korea needs more renewable energy to meet its goal of phasing out coal and nuclear power – but has little available land for solar farms and wind turbines.

North Korea, across the demilitarized zone, needs any kind of energy it can get – and, having cut down large swathes of its forests, has big areas where large-scale clean energy plants could be built.

Could a push for renewable energy help bring the two hostile sides together – and maybe even put the conflict-torn peninsula on a path to being nuclear-free one day? Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute, thinks so.

South Korea aims to boost the share of renewable sources in its energy supply from 4 percent to 20 percent by 2030. One motivation is to curb climate change.

The other is to address worries about air pollution and the threat of a nuclear power plant disaster, as occurred in Fukushima in neighbouring Japan, triggered by a massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The challenge is that “South Korea wants to get rid of coal and nuclear at the same time, which is almost impossible”, said Rijsberman, particularly when officials think there is insufficient land for big new renewable energy projects.

But across the border lies North Korea, which does have the space, he noted. It also has such a limited energy supply that most of the country is still cutting trees for firewood.

“North Korea is like countries in Africa. Off-grid power, mini-grids, microgrids could be real answers there,” Rijsberman said.

But with leaders of the two long-estranged nations launching a groundbreaking series of meetings this year, might a reunification become possible, at least in terms of energy supply?

Rijsberman thinks it could have benefits for both sides. His organisation’s initial efforts to talk with North Korea about closer ties with its southern neighbour on renewables and reforestation of the north’s heavily degraded land have met with interest, he said.

“We have knocked on the door and the door is open,” he added.

Signs of easing tensions have already appeared. South Korean trains are now passing through North Korea to check the state of 3,000 km of track, with a view to a joint railway system in the future, Rijsberman said. Ten border posts have been dismantled.

South Korea’s forestry minister has 500 million tree seedlings in greenhouses, “waiting to bring them across the border once they’re allowed”, Rijsberman said.

COMPLEX POLITICS

South Korea thinks a more likely bet is building a regional “super grid” powered by renewables, perhaps in the Gobi Desert in China and Mongolia. In the desert, there is “electrical generation potential bigger than installed electricity capacity already in Korea, China and Japan”, said Suh-yong Chung, director of the Center for Global Climate and Marine Governance at Korea University.

But the problem with sourcing most of South Korea’s power from anywhere across a national border would be “the complicated geopolitical situation” in the region, he admitted.

Rijsberman – and environmental activists – think a potential phase-out of nuclear energy on the Korean peninsula could be the first step toward an even bigger goal: eliminating nuclear weapons too.

Leaders of both South and North Korea have agreed nuclear weapons should be phased out on the peninsula – and removing nuclear power stations, which could provide the materials needed for bombs, is the first step.

Chung also believes the peninsular going nuclear-free is “technically a good idea” – but probably lies well down the road.

Rijsberman isn’t so sure. As the unexpected meetings between the two Koreas have shown this year, “things can suddenly become possible”, he said.

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