ONJUNG-RI, North Korea — When the sun drops low in the winter sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat houses of monochromatic concrete are swallowed up by the night. Not even a dim lightbulb or an oil lamp flickering through a broken windowpane interrupts the expanse of darkness. It is as though this entire village of 3,000 people has disappeared, along with all other signs of human habitation.
This is a typical nighttime scene in rural North Korea, where electricity is in such short supply that few people can light their homes. Even the lighthouse at nearby Kosung harbor doesn't shine at night. It doesn't matter much, though, as there's no fuel for boats -- or for anything else.
Of all the difficulties facing North Korea, the energy shortage is perhaps the most critical. It underlies the crisis over nuclear development and is one of the main factors contributing to chronic famines and the overall dysfunction of the country.
"It is a vicious downward cycle. Everything that North Korea has is decrepit, and they don't have the electricity to make spare parts to fix it," said Timothy Savage, who has worked on energy-assistance programs in North Korea with the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, a Berkeley organization that has conducted some of the most detailed studies of this nation's energy problems.
Savage contrasts the situation in North Korea with underdeveloped countries where households have never relied on electricity.
"This is not like rural Africa," he said. "North Korea was completely electrified. It is not like they were never part of the modern world. They were kicked out of the modern world."
In its last detailed study of North Korea's energy situation, Nautilus estimated that in 2000 the nation had an electricity-generating capacity of about 2 gigawatts at any given time, less than one-third of what it had a decade earlier.
That is less electrical energy for this nation of 22 million people than is consumed by many medium-size American cities.
Put another way, the amount of electricity used by the average North Korean -- including in homes, industries, shops and government buildings -- was less than 4% of that used by an American.
"I'm sure it has not gotten better, and in all probability it has gotten worse," said David Von Hippel, an energy specialist who was one of the authors of the report.
On Thursday, the North Korean government acknowledged its energy woes in a state news service report, noting that power outages frequently disrupted factories and electric train service.
"If the United States did not kick up a 'nuclear row' ... the electricity problem would have already been solved fully in the country," the Korean Central News Agency said.
The problem is most pressing outside the capital, Pyongyang, in remote stretches of the countryside. Foreigners are seldom permitted to visit rural North Korea -- in part, say diplomats, because the regime is embarrassed by the scarcities. But one can get a glimpse here in the southeastern enclave around Mt. Kumgang, where guided tours are operated from South Korea.
"This area is far from Pyongyang, and it is really suffering. There is less and less electricity every year," said Kim Young Hyun, a South Korean who manages tourist facilities on the outskirts of Onjung-ri for the Hyundai Asan Corp.
The company has brought in generators and fuel for the tourists, but the village itself remains dark.
Onjung-ri has electricity between five and 10 days a month, and then only for an hour or two at a time. Firewood is piled high on apartment balconies to provide heat and cooking fuel. There appear to be no operating cars or trucks in the village, just an occasional bicycle.
Although there is a large railroad station just outside the village, adorned with a banner praising North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung, there hasn't been enough power to run the electrified trains in years.
People walk along the unused track and in the middle of empty roads carrying improbably large parcels.
Nearby, men and women appear to be building a bridge entirely with hand tools. There is no evidence of any heavy machinery in sight.
Kosung, the port town of 50,000, is filled with construction cranes that appear to be rusted in place.
The chockablock apartment buildings that form its skyline are similarly dark at night.
Residents say they feel lucky if the power is on when they return from work in the evenings so that they can use the elevator.
"The electricity comes and goes," said Park Hyun Il, 28, who works as a tour guide at Mt. Kumgang. "I'm lucky I live on the third floor so I don't have far to walk."
"Electricity is essential for the quality of life," said resident Kim In Joon, 60, who works at another tourist site near the mountain.
"Even our cultural life is suffering because we can't watch television."