Energy Generation in Rason

Over the past few years, Rason has become a major focus for China/Russia/DPRK investments and has frequently been discussed in cross-border research papers like Sino-NK’s Tumen Triangle Projects. Despite the limelight, one critical area that has been glossed over is the current plans to revitalize the decaying and decrepit Seungri Oil Refinery (Also romanized as Seung-ni) and Seonbong Thermal Plant both of which are vital to the future development of Rason and surrounding areas.

In the famous mid-90s nighttime satellite photos of the two Koreas from space, shown below with Donald Rumsfeld, essentially only Pyongyang is visible from space.

Mannie Garcia/Reuters, Picture Here


The image Rumsfeld was looking at, this version hosted at Business Insider

While this image doesn’t actually have the resolution required to see the light from other cities in the DPRK, the essential point gets across to viewers.

Most of the DPRK is dark, including Rason. However, with its growth as a tourist and investment hub in the last ten years (and with a better resolution satellite image), Rason has become more visible from space.

Rason: Minimal Light Footprint, but Still Visible [NASA Black Marble 2012]

This is despite the chronic electrical shortages that plague Rason, and the DPRK in general. Rason is not immune to the flickering lights, random brown or black outs, and being supported by the occasional ‘tourist electricity’ allocations of energy. During the Cold War era, the Rason area was powered by the Seonbong Thermal Power Plant. [1] It is the only oil-fired thermal plant in the DPRK, as opposed to the more common coal-fired ones which take advantage of the DPRK’s plentiful natural coal supplies. The Seonbong plant was built with Soviet assistance either in the early 1970s [2] or in 1968 and relied heavily on petroleum products refined from Soviet oil imported at a discounted rate.

Sources disagree on exactly what type of oil is used at Seonbong – the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) report claims it is diesel fired while David von Hippel and researchers from BDSec both claim it burns heavy fuel oil (HFO). [3] FAS is consistent in claiming diesel for both Seonbong and the KEDO deliveries, while von Hippel and KEDO itself maintain that both are HFO (This article will err on the side of KEDO and assume HFO is correct). Curiously enough, another source actually puts forward coal as the fuel used in the Seonbong Plant. Beyond these sources, it is difficult to verify the nature of the plants. Technopromexport, a Russian company that worked on numerous DPRK Thermal Plants during the Cold War, maintains a list of completed projects on its websites, including the DPRK’s plants. However, this list (on pg. 39) describes the “Ungi TPP” as having two 50MW coal-fired generators. This is the only source with this description.

Regardless, Seonbong is reported to have a 200 megawatt capacity and has either two or three turbines powering it. [4] Pictures taken from inside the plant are included in the HBOil report from BDSec and indicate that there are three turbines, two of which are very clearly visible, with a third partially blocked by piping and one of the other turbines. One of these turbines appears to have different casing, both in color and shape, indicating that it could be a different type or capacity turbine than the other two. This could also just be an ascetic difference or the result of repairs or refurbishing.

Both Pictures from BDSec’s Report

The Seonbong TPP was fed by the Seungri Oil Refinery, located about 3km west, just over a nearby hill. A declassified CIA document indicates Seungri was capable of only handling ‘lighter’ Soviet and OPEC crude oil as opposed to heavier crude from the PRC, though they do not specify exactly what quality or type of crude is used. [5] In a future post, we will be examining multiple claims and details regarding Seungri’s capacity, throughput, and related topics. For the purposes of this article, however, all that matters is that, if operational, Seungri is capable of piping HFO directly to Seonbong, based on crude oils piped in from ships docked in Unggi Bay.

Foreign investment is what sets Rason apart from the rest of the country. While joint ventures do pop up elsewhere, and the government has recently established numerous new Special Economic Zones, Rason is currently the most open investment site to foreigners and has numerous fascinating projects both starting and finishing up. A recent report from BDSec Joint Stock Company for HBOil reveals that one of the newcomers to Rason is Mongolia. While China and Russia have rented out the piers in the Rajin portion of Rason, HBOil seems more interested in Seonbong and the energy scene.

Bloomberg covered part of the deal last year, and the later-released report includes interesting details that indicate HBOil’s desire to revitalize Seungri Oil Refinery, which, in the report, is listed as being currently offline, and Seonbong Thermal Power Plant, which is described as running at full capacity. [6] If true, this does show how much growth has outpaced production – as both from personal experience and other visitors’ descriptions, it appears that Rason suffers from frequent power outages and the chronic under-powering that has been associated with DPRK urban areas for years.

One of the most interesting sections of the BDSec report indicates there are efforts to convert Seonbong Plant from a HFO-burning plant, which the DPRK does not domestically produce in any relevant capacity, to a coal-burning one, a plentiful domestic resource. [7] The information from BDSec adds to reports of Rason also plugging into the PRC power grid, meaning that Rason soon may find its blackouts alleviated somewhat, or even eliminated altogether, if a proper electricity-sharing plan has been reached. [8]

The HBOil deal, assuming it goes completely through, represents a further expansion of foreign infrastructure developments in Rason. A major highway recently completed by the PRC leads from Wonjeong Border Crossing into the city, and Russia recently completed a railway that connects Rason to the greater Russian rail networks. As well, the Russian Federation and PRC each rent out a pier in Rajin’s three-piered port, with rumors of a serious port expansion that could partially look like a US projection of the area made in 1945.

A Small Portion of the Hi-Res Map, Found Here

This means that Rason is not only poised to grow as a shipping nexus for Chinese and Russian goods looking for a port farther south than Vladivostok, but also as an actual trade, tourism, and investment hub. If the BDSec reports are to be believed, which is a question for another post, then Rason may be getting a domestic power upgrade soon, alleviating or, at a minimum, easing the power troubles that currently plague the city. Shipping routes mixed with new power plants and the hookup with the Hunchun power grid may even open Rason up for larger scale manufacturing and industrial capabilities in the near future.

The Seonbong Thermal Power Plant is a great symbol of Rason, and the country at large, at present: still technically a Soviet holdover that has the potential to be reworked as a more modern, effective unit capable of properly supporting the surrounding area.

Rason’s shipping and electrical integration with the greater Tumen Triangle economic region is an interesting opportunity for the typically foreign-investment-averse DPRK to continue experimenting with foreign investment on a wider scale, with more investment partners and in more diverse industries. Shipping, infrastructure, energy, and tourism can lead to manufacturing, services, and consumer goods, which as Yong points out, can help balance out an inflated command economy.


[1] Researchers have occasionally referred to this plant as Unggi/Ungi, the historic name of the bay and area now called Sonbong, and June 16th. Curtis Melvin tracked down the actual name : 선봉화력발전소, Seonbong Thermal Power Plant

[2] Central Intelligence Agency, “North Korea: Energy Scene,” July 1987. Secret.

[3] David Von Hippel and Peter Hayes, “Fueling DPRK Energy Futures and Energy Security,” Nautilus Institute, September 13, 2012.

[4] CIA, “Energy Scene” (1987). pg 21

[5] ibid

[6] The ability of Seonbong to run at full capacity, as well as the amount of HFO needed to run Seonbong vs. the amount of HFO possibly obtained and/or produced by the DPRK will also be addressed in a later article.

[7] CIA, “Energy Scene” (1987). pg 6

[8] ibid pg 2

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5 Responses to Energy Generation in Rason

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