North Korea Touts Dark Satellite Photo in Editorial

2-10-15 North Korea satellite
The North Korean regime tries to find the silver lining in a much-circulated satellite image. NASA-JSC/Reuters

An editorial in North Korea's primary newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, recently tried to cast a positive light on a dark satellite image, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

In February last year, NASA released a photo (dated January 30) taken by astronauts on Expedition 38 at the International Space Station as they flew over East Asia. It showed a nighttime view of the Korean Peninsula, with the area south of the DMZ awash in a web of light (none so blinding as around Seoul).

To the north however, the image was dark, with one speck visible around the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and a few scattered pinpricks elsewhere. North Korea appeared as a black expanse caught between the shining swaths of South Korean and Chinese lights.

Titled "Right in Front of Our Eyes," the Rodong Sinmun editorial played down the significance of the image and touted a positive interpretation.

"They [North Korea's detractors] clap their hands and get loud over a satellite picture of our city with not much light, but the essence of society is not on flashy lights," the editorial says, according to a translation by the Journal.

To viewers outside of North Korea, the image gave insight into the isolated Communist country which has a population of roughly 25 million and where electricity has been scarce since the Soviet Union's fall in the 1990s limited its fuel supply. Though there was a time in the early 1980s when North Korea's per capita power consumption exceeded that of South Korea, population roughly 50 million, the World Bank's most recent data show that in 2011, North Korea's per capita consumption was 739 kilowatt hours compared with South Korea's 10,162.

More recently, NASA astronaut Terry Virts posted aerial views of Seoul and Pyongyang one after the other on Twitter and Instagram that showed a similarly striking contrast.

A beautiful night pass tonight over Seoul, South Korea

— Terry Virts (@AstroTerry) January 20, 2015

And here is Pyongyang, North Korea.

— Terry Virts (@AstroTerry) January 20, 2015

North Korea's secluded position within the international community means it's difficult to gather accurate information about the country's living conditions. Much of what's known is gleaned from defector accounts, articles and books by journalists who have visited there and spent time with defectors (such as Barbara Demick'sNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea) and media reports by state-run outlets.

The Journal reports that the editorial "[exhorts] citizens to follow the dictates of the leadership to build a great nation," as is characteristic of North Korean messages. It tries to shift the focus from North Korea's domestic troubles like lack of electricity to the supposed fate of the United States.

The U.S. and North Korea have been involved in a spat over a cyberattack on Sony Entertainment Pictures by hackers claiming retaliation for the film The Interview, which depicts the assassination of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Two months ago, President Barack Obama blamed the attack on North Korea. Though the country denied involvement, it called the movie an "act of war," and an article from the state news agency KCNA said, "the hacking into Sony Pictures might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathizers with the DPRK in response to its appeal."

The editorial on the satellite photo suggests, as North Korean propaganda typically does of the country's Western enemies, that the U.S. is the one whose economy and society are truly ailing.

"An old superpower that is meeting its sunset may put up a face of arrogance but it can't avoid its dark fate," the editorial says.