Generating Power–Electric, hydroelectric, thermal (coal), atomic

I’m back once again to this question of electricity and power in its various forms, as I think the long-term story of generating power in NE Asia (1880’s-present), and specifically on the Korean peninsula, sheds some interesting light on the transnational history of the contested region, this in distinct contrast to the individual national histories of power industries.  I would love to be able to link: (1)  electrification (late 19th century), to (2) the colonial period (especially the hydroelectric power plants in the North along the Yalu and Tumen), to (3) the electrical showdown / cutoff of May 1948 (North stops providing access following UN elections), to (4) the period of the war and reconstruction (temporary barges, and later thermal stations), to the (5) decision to pursue atomic power (late 1950’s, with a commercial industry by the late 1970’s).  For now, though, I’ll just briefly touch on the Bechtel project associated with the mid-1950’s, which covers #4.

I recently managed to get a copy of the Bechtel in-house report on the project, with three major thermal stations, completed between 1954 -1956, at Tangin-Ri, Samchok, and Masan (which was the image from my last post in August).

This map shows that the effort was an attempt to plug into the existing grid at various points in the country (roughly comprising a triangulation) in 1954.  What I don’t know, and would love to know, is how much of this grid predates 1948, as I suspect much of it does.

And below  is a letter of thanks from the Korean side, following completion of the project, although I have not had a chance to look this document over.

For now, this consists of little more than musing on the topic, but in the aftermath of the Recent awarding of the reactor project for the UAE (Korea and Hyundai won the bid as part of a consortium),  and Lee Myung-Bak’s mobilization of the ROK domestic nuclear industry, I really want to put together something more substantive: that is, to take a long look at the history of power from the standpoint of a thorough transnational history (involving the U.S , Korea, Japan, Canada, at the very least).  More on this later~


  1. Hey John!

    If you’re really interested I have a ton of stuff on the history of electrification from my dissertation research. I’m still working on publishing my own stuff but I’m not going to go beyond the colonial era. Have to draw the line somewhere. But for your interests, a good place to start is a two volume set issued called the “100 year History of Electricity” or “Paengy^on ch^ongi sa”. I copied mine in Korea from KEPCO but if you can’t make it over, I can loan you mine when I see you at the AAS in Philly…

    Min Suh

  2. Hey Min Suh,

    Thanks–If it’s not too much trouble, yes, I’d like to see what you have, but don’t go to any trouble. Even just the references would be good, as I’m in Seoul all summer this year so I can track stuff down. I think Hiromi might be putting together a lunch at AAS for her project, so I’m sure I’ll see you there and I’ll be around all three days.

    Others, any ideas about finding Nihon Chisso (Nippon Chisso) company histories for the late 1920’s and 1930’s (besides NDL or Jimbocho), would love to hear them. I’m especially interested in the hydroelectric facilities along either the Yalu or Tumen.


  3. About “the long-term story of generating power in NE Asia (1880’s-present)”, you may begin even earlier than Min-suh’s thesis (that, by the way, I read and found very interesting), with the very beginning of the spread of electric generator in Asia.

    At the end of a paper entitled “Korea-Japan Relations and the History of Science and Technology” (Korea Journal, n°32-4 (Winter 1992), pp. 80-88), Park Seong-rae mentions the case of what seems to be the first electric generator introduced in Korea… from Japan. Yi Kyugyŏng 李圭景 talks about this noebŏpki 雷法器 in its Oju yŏnmun changjŏn san’go 五州衍文長箋散橋. He say he saw it in the 1830’s and he add it was from Japan, probably one of the Hiraga Gennai 平賀源内 ‘s type.

    That is probably not something you want to deal with because the period is far away from your original inquiries. But such story participate to the problematic of circulation of knowledge and its transnational consequences in East Asia. I don’t know, this might be interesting for an introduction.

  4. At the end of a paper entitled “Korea-Japan Relations and the History of Science and Technology” (Korea Journal, n°32-4 (Winter 1992), pp. 80-88), Park Seong-rae mentions the case of what seems to be the first electric generator introduced in Korea… from Japan.

    Thanks for this–his son used to teach here (NUS), so Dr. Park used to visit Singapore regularly, but that’s before my time. I don’t know that I want to go this early, but as you point out, it’s interesting and relevant to the larger themes of circulation, translation of technology, both material and ideological.

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