The prerequisite household appliance for a North Korean home

Wednesday 3rd April, 2013
north korea at night

North Korea at night.

While North Korea’s theme parks may be brightly lit, its people live in pitch darkness

Smart TVs, coffee makers, irons, game consoles, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners: these products are some of the household appliances found in every South Korean home. Without electricity, however, these appliances are useless.

In North Korea, the electricity supply is never reliable. Moreover, batteries are expensive. This is why the transformer is the prerequisite household appliance for every North Korean home.

Kim Cheol-ho* (age 44) tells us, “Since Kim Il-sung’s death, the provision of mains electricity has worsened considerably. In the past, it was normal for the electricity supply to be cut off from time to time. But recently, we have been grateful to have any electricity supply at all.”

North Koreans used to have their transformers work at a capacity of 1k. Today, even when the electricity is supplied (for around three hours maximum), the current is so weak that transformers are made to work at a capacity of 3-4k. In this way, the electricity that can be drawn in a limited amount of time is maximized.

Those who don’t have use of a transformer that can function at such a capacity choose to reverse the transformer coil so that it works in the opposite direction. This is said to raise the voltage to an acceptable level – otherwise, the mains electricity is so weak that it is impossible to power a fluorescent lamp.

Nevertheless, if a normal supply resumes all of a sudden to a North Korean home using this arrangement, the transformer may burn out or in some cases, lead to more serious accidents. This is why many North Korean homes have circuit breakers installed.

There are other obstacles for a passable mains electricity in North Korean homes too. Kim Jong-un has issued an order for the confiscation of any transformers that have been privately purchased and installed by a household, if its capacity exceeds 1k. This has been frustrating some of the voluntary efforts made by ordinary North Koreans to secure a usable supply of electricity.

North Korean home

A transformer in a North Korean home.

North Korean refugee Lee Min-woo* (age 42) tells us, “North Korean homes that use transformers already own household appliances that require electricity. They are better off than others.” He explains that when he lived in North Korea, a transformer was not common – it was more of a luxury item.

In these circumstances, Chinese household appliance vendors may do well to offer a ‘free transformer’ when they are selling their products to North Koreans.

Kim Cheol-ho* tells us, “One of the wishes of the North Korean people is to be able to watch a television program without interruption. Even when using a transformer, it is not possible to watch anything properly – due to the low voltage, the screen keeps changing size, going from big to small repeatedly.”

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