PYONGYANG (Reuters) - It is eight o'clock on a Saturday night and darkness envelopes virtually all of Pyongyang, serving as a vivid reminder of communist North Korea's pressing energy needs.
World leaders such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have talked of satellite pictures of the Korean peninsula taken at night that show a brightly illuminated South and the North in total darkness.
Miles beneath the high-tech flying eyes, Pyongyang residents have become adept at riding bicycles through the gloom, playing cards by the light of hotel billboards or negotiating sidewalks with shuffling, tiny steps to avoid collisions.
Apart from a few illuminated windows in apartment blocks, the only lights on are at the hotels for foreign visitors and the halls designed to show the greatness of the North Korean system of self-reliance.
The floodlights were blazing inside the cavernous May 1 Stadium for weekend ceremonies celebrating the end of World War Two, but the thousands of students waiting to perform the mass choreography had to queue up in the darkness.
A couple of blocks away, as dozens of people waited for an electric tram -- already packed with passengers -- the only light came from the occasional passing car.
"We can't turn on many street lights because energy is scarce," a North Korean official told a group of Thai journalists through his translator over a dinner after the mass dance show.
"Our country faces many problems, but the most serious one is we don't have enough energy," said the official, who spoke only Korean and French and identified himself as "Mr Choi".
North Korea has sought help from the outside world, particularly South Korea, to alleviate its power shortage.
One of the stumbling blocks in recent six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons programmes was whether Pyongyang should have the right eventually to civilian nuclear power.
North Korea has the potential to generate about 7,800 megawatts of electricity, but fuel shortages have cut output to nearly a third, data from South Korean state agencies show. The shortage has kept more than two-thirds of its factories idle.
Conversely, no power or expense is spared on the symbols or ceremonies central to the history and ideology of the communist state, one of the most isolated countries in the world, or the few places foreigners are allowed to visit.
Electricity is available around the clock at the twin-tower Koryo hotel, which charges customers at least 110 euro ($134) a night for a twin bedroom on any of its 35 floors.
Lights are left on until at least 10 p.m. at empty hotel restaurants. Outside, the streets are pitch black.
In the May 1 Stadium, the dazzling, 90-minute show of Arirang dances, involving 50,000 performers twirling about to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of Japan's imperial rule over the peninsula, provides an illuminating contrast.
The show tells how the country overcame the harsh foreign occupation to become a prospering and productive state with a powerful army in the 21st century.
But at his dinner with visiting journalists, Mr Choi said North Korea lacked the infrastructure and fuel to generate enough electricity -- hence its need for nuclear power plants.
"We don't have enough coal nor water supplies to generate power," he said. "The solution is a peaceful nuclear programme."
South Korean state firms said the North had the capacity to produce most of its power from hydroelectric plants with a combined generation potential of 4,810 megawatts.
The North also has a five-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon complex, the heart of its nuclear programmes. But the power that generates is believed to be barely enough to run the complex, let alone to be distributed outside.
The United States suspects that North Korea cannot be trusted with a peaceful nuclear programme because that could merely serve as a figleaf for the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Seoul has offered to provide the North with electrical supplies roughly equal to its current output if the impoverished state dismantles its nuclear arms programmes.
The answer may come when the six-party nuclear talks resume in Beijing in the week of September 12.
Echoing top Pyongyang officials, Mr. Choi insisted that North Korea needed a nuclear deterrent to ensure its peaceful development and self-defence.
"Look what happened to Afghanistan and Iraq. If we did not have nuclear weapons to defend ourselves, we would end up like them," he said referring to the US-led invasions.
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