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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kleptocrats Stole My Heat

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East — Last month, while I was in Seoul, South Korea, a U.S. congressional aide e-mailed me a composite satellite photograph of the earth, taken the night of Nov. 25.

I was writing about North Korea’s attempts to blackmail the South into providing it with electricity, and the photograph shows the lights of the world’s cities.

Europe, Japan and the United States are lakes of fire. The Nile valley is a glowworm crawling through a black Sahara. Even Russia is what you might expect on a good day — well lit in the west, mostly black in the sparsely settled stretches of Siberia and the Far East. Vladivostok and nearby Nakhodka are (or were on that night) beads of light on the Sea of Japan.

The eye-opener was the Korean peninsula. The South blazes like a supernova, and you can precisely trace the line of the Demilitarized Zone because all lights stop at the border. In the whole of North Korea, Pyongyang is the only luminance. Apart from gray smudges in the cities of Hamhung and Hyesan, the rest is darker than New Guinea.

I have been studying this map with fascination since returning to Vladivostok 10 days ago. The lights have been out as long as 14 hours a day in my barely heated apartment, and some people have been doing without electricity for 20, even 24 hours at a time. During blackouts I sometimes sit at my desk wearing my fur hat and calf-length sheepskin coat, and peer at the map on my laptop. The room is lighted by candles. My computer blinks its low-battery warning, and I think, "So that’s what’s happening. This place is becoming North Korea." (My cynicism, it seems, has returned.)

I do not mean that blackouts alone make this city comparable to a country where doctors conduct surgery by wheeling gurneys up to a window because there is no electricity in hospitals. Nor, for that matter, that the occasional roughing-up of journalists here compares to the use of children as slave laborers.

But when your after-dark entertainment consists of staring at candles, when it’s minus 28 degrees Celsius out and you can see your breath indoors, when a frost patch grows on the wall, you do a slow burn. Vladivostok — like North Korea — is a colossal, staggering, inexcusable waste of potential. The proof is in the blackouts. They are not acts of God; they are works of human folly.

True, California is having its own problem with blackouts applied in a checkerboard pattern in limited cities for fewer than four hours a day. And yes, this represents folly of a different sort — bad deregulation, a not-in-my-back-yard attitude that prevents the building of power stations. But a San Francisco bartender lighting his establishment for two hours a night with a propane lantern (unavailable here, by the way) is a problem of a different magnitude than blackouts that shut down an entire region’s industry.

Vladivostok should be a Hong Kong of the North. It is a deepwater port at the end of the world’s greatest railroad in a land of vast forests, oil reserves and mineral resources. Its educated populace lives near the planet’s fastest growing economies. In North Korea, likewise, one need only to look at the South to see a glowing vision of what the Hermit Kingdom should be.

In both cases, the problem is a failure of governance. North Korea’s communist leader-worship has produced nothing but famine. In the Russian Far East, the problem of kleptocratic rule is far less catastrophic, but the impoverishment is nevertheless inflicted from above.

Three years ago, the Federal Security Service reported that during the heating seasons of 1995-96 and 1996-97, the regional administration never received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fuel it claimed it paid for. The Kremlin did nothing to find out where the money went.

Regional leaders would protest that this has been the coldest winter since 1949. But last summer we also endured endless blackouts. The same apartments were unheated last winter, and the previous winter and the winter before that. It is time for the Kremlin to face up: Corrupt regional leaders — not oligarchs with mansions in Spain or reporters who cross enemy lines — are the real threat to the nation’s future. Nothing will change until somebody prepares arrest warrants and hauls off the crooks in handcuffs.

They are probably wishing for the same thing in North Korea.