North Korea goes Mobile — sort of

Stephen DeAngelis

January 07, 2009

North Korea remains one of the world’s most closed societies. Leaders in North Korea rightfully fear that opening up the world to their citizens would result in unrest that could topple the regime. If leaders there have proven one thing over the years, it is that protecting the regime tops their list of priorities. They have sacrificed the well-being and future prosperity of their people at the altar of power. It is somewhat surprising, given its history, that the North Korean regime is installing a mobile phone network [“Impoverished NKorea gets new mobile network,” by Kelly Olsen, Boston Globe, 15 December 2008]. In an interesting twist, North Korean leaders looked to Egypt rather than to China to build the network.

“An Egyptian telecoms giant launched an advanced mobile phone network in North Korea on [15 December], the latest attempt to introduce a global symbol of personal freedom into one of the world’s most tightly controlled societies. But analysts cautioned against reading too much into the widely publicized $400 million deal for a third generation mobile network built by Orascom Telecom. Orascom Telecom Chief Executive Naguib Sawiris said the company’s aim was for a ‘network that will accommodate the 22 million people’ in North Korea. … It was not clear what controls, if any, would be imposed on the network, which will provide phone service and data capability in a country that has tested a nuclear device but, relies on international assistance to feed its people.”

Probably the biggest control on the network will be cost. The communist regime has produced little wealth among its population and right now few citizens will probably be able to afford to use the technology.

“A Pyongyang-based report by the Korean Central News Agency provided no details on the terms of service, the types of phones it might accommodate, or who would be able to utilize it. Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, noted previous ‘optimistic predictions’ that cell phone use heralded a loosening of controls had fallen short. ‘North Korea doesn’t want its people to talk too much between themselves,’ he said. Authorities restrict the population’s access to all but officially sanctioned sources of information and Internet access is limited to top government and military officials.”

You might recall that communist Cuba only made access to mobile phones widely available to its citizens this past year. In terms of being an open society, Cuba (as bad as it is) is far ahead of North Korea.

“Paik Hak-soon, an expert on North Korea at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, a policy think tank, said only elites will likely have access to the network, at least initially. ‘Government, party, military people are the big beneficiaries,’ he said. Traders and people involved in the economy may also be allowed to use it, Paik said. North Korea has experimented with cell phones before and has a working mobile phone network, though not as advanced as the one built by Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Holding SAE.”

Even though North Korean elites will be the principal beneficiaries of the network, a mobile phone network is another step towards connecting the country with the rest of the world. That connectivity will eventually prove to be the regime’s undoing. They recognize the risks — which is why an earlier experiment with cell phones was stopped.

“[North Koreans] were allowed to use mobile phones for a short period in 2003 and 2004, but network access was abruptly cut off, without explanation. Later, foreigners in the North were allowed to use the network, but local North Koreans remained without access. The cutoff came after a mysterious train explosion in April 2004 that killed an estimated 160 people. The blast was believed to have been sparked by a train laden with oil and chemicals that hit power lines. Experts are divided about whether the crackdown on mobile phone use was related to the train blast or was just an example of the regime getting nervous about losing control over its people.”

The reason that many pundits believe that as more networks are installed in North Korea the closer the regime comes to its demise is that controlling networks is a difficult and labor intensive activity.

“North Koreans still manage to make mobile calls illicitly, sometimes using networks in neighboring China. North Korean defectors in South Korea say they can regularly contact relatives.”

The new network will at first have coverage only in North Korea’s major cities.

“Orascom has said it intends to cover Pyongyang and most of the country’s major cities during the first year of service. Subscriber fees had yet to be announced. The company runs networks in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia and has not shied from investing in places considered challenging and politically unpredictable, such as Zimbabwe.”

Orascom is obviously hoping for a “first mover” advantage, but it may have to wait some time before it gets much of a return on investment.

“North Korea, where Paik estimates per capita gross domestic product is less than $500 a year, has taken some steps to liberalize its economy in recent years and has courted foreign investment. Despite its general impoverishment — North Korea’s economy is estimated to be just 2.6 percent the size of wealthy rival South Korea’s — and trouble feeding itself without international assistance, the country has consistently emphasized the importance of science and technology in its development, something experts say has been promoted by top leader Kim. ‘Kim Jong Il is not against technology,’ said Lankov. ‘He is for technology.'”

It’s probably more accurate to say that Kim Jong Il is for any technology that he believes will help him stay in power and which he can use to blackmail the world.

“Most famously, North Korea carried out an underground nuclear blast two years ago amid an international standoff with the United States and other countries trying to convince it to abandon atomic development. It also has an active missile program.”

North Korea has adopted a pattern of negotiation where it appears to make a deal with the international community, but at the brink of requiring it to implement the deal, it backs out and asks for more concessions otherwise it threatens to do something bad. This pattern has been repeated time and again over the past several decades. The mobile phone deal, however, was a business transaction not an international negotiation.

“Orascom said it was the first foreign telecommunications company to be awarded a North Korean commercial telecommunications license and would have exclusive rights for four years. The 25-year-license to operate in the reclusive state was granted to Orascom subsidiary CHEO Technology JV Co., which is 75 percent owned by the Egyptian firm. The remaining stake is held by state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp.”

Eventually, North Korea will either collapse under the weight of an onerous regime or enlightened leadership will lead the country into the information age and connectivity with the global economy. Either way, having a mobile phone network upon which to build the future will be important.