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North Korea may be using algae to work around international sanctions

  • North Korea reportedly appears to be beefing up algae research facilities to strengthen its energy and food security
  • Algae could mitigate the negative effects of international sanctions

One of the world's most secretive states is going green — for national security reasons.

Pyongyang may be interested in developing algae as "a strategic resource," according to a note on 38 North, a website focused on North Korea that's part of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Algae, plantlike organisms that includes kelp and spirulina, is a multipurpose resource that can produce food, fertilizer, feedstock and fuel from the same biomass. And it makes sense for Pyongyang to be interested: Over time, an algae industry could gradually "mitigate the negative effects of sanctions both on the country's energy supply and food security," the note said.

Research facilities dedicated to open ponds and aquaculture systems — key infrastructure for algae growth — have existed in the rogue state since the early 2000s but they have recently become more complex, 38 North said, pointing to large plants in two different areas as examples.

38 North

"It is not surprising that the North Korean government is developing thousands of rural open ponds producing algae and bigger and more sophisticated sites, whose purpose increasingly looks like algae production," the note said.

Benefits of green gold

The isolated nation lacks domestic petroleum reserves as well as fertilizer. To make up for that, its agricultural deficiencies and chronic food shortages, Pyongyang has long attempted to become resource independent. Self-reliance is even part of its official state ideology known as Juche.

But the rogue state still remains dependent on foreign imports of fuel and food for survival. Historical ally China has long been Pyongyang's primary trading partner and economic lifeline, but Beijing banned certain energy exports to comply with United Nations resolutions.

As international sanctions take their toll, the North Korean economy is under pressure. Ordinary households face insufficient food supplies and a lack of electricity, former senior North Korean economic official Ri Jong Ho told the Asia Society in New York earlier this year.

That's where algae can help.

When processed, algae boasts high protein content, making it an excellent food supplement and fertilizer, 38 North said. The photosynthetic organisms, sometimes referred to as green gold, are often used to combat malnutrition in developing countries and also marketed as superfoods.

"The same algae can also contain approximately 20 percent lipids, which can be processed into biofuels," the note continued.

Using data from nine North Korean facilities, the note estimated that 2,851 tons of algae biomass could be produced each year. That contains approximately 1,425.5 tons of nutritional mass and could be converted to the equivalent of 4,075.6 barrels of oil.

"If there were just 100 times more acreage in production and being utilized, the oil yield could be 6.5 percent of North Korea's 2014 estimated requirements for their entire economy," the note said.

"Given the potential for algae-based oil production, a more thorough investigation is warranted of whether these facilities could in the future fulfill a national security requirement."