Cellphones No Signal Of Reforms

New North Korean leader Kim Jong Un keeps a tight lid on information flow.
2012-01-19
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North Korean girls use mobile phones in a park in Pyongyang, Sept. 22, 2010.
AFP

North Korea has seen a quantum leap in mobile phone imports but experts do not see it as a trigger for an opening up of the reclusive society emerging from the death of dictator Kim Jong Il.

The latest UN statistics showed that in 2010, North Korea imported 430,000 mobile phones from China, its primary ally and biggest trading partner, a six-fold jump from imports the previous year.

North Koreans forked out U.S. $35 million to buy these mobile phones, six times more than the money spent in 2009, according to the UN figures.

At the same time, Koryolink, North Korea’s only 3G mobile phone network operator, saw a rapid increase in subscribers—from about 90,000 at the end of 2009 to 430,000 a year later and more than 800,000 in the third quarter of 2011, according to majority owner Egypt's Orascom Telecom.

While the rapid increase in mobile phone users is allowing greater communications within and outside the country, there are various restrictions in usage and it does not signal any major opening up of North Korea, experts told RFA.

"It's not like nearly one million people in North Korea can access CNN or talk with the outside world," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA top analyst on North Korea and now with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

He said that visitors to North Korea had told him that there are about four layers of cell phone access in the hardline communist state, with the senior echelon of government in the first layer reserved for communications within and outside the country.

Some of the relatively cheap Chinese phones however can communicate with China but only within the first 10 miles or so from the border with North Korea, he said.

North Korean defectors in South Korea often gain contact with North Koreans along the Chinese border areas, he said.

"So, someone in Pyongyang can't necessarily use a Chinese cell phone to talk to people in China," Klingner said.

"When experts talk about any possibility of a 'Kimchi' revolution in North Korea, everyone is still very skeptical because the North Korean security services are far more pervasive, vigilant and stronger than even the most brutal Middle Eastern regime," he explained.

The wave of Arab Spring revolts in North Africa and the Middle East has led to debate on the prospect of similar awakening in China, North Korea and other largely repressive nations.

Klingner said North Korea also had no social media allowing communications across the country that would generate an ability to organize demonstrations for political and other reforms.

Tight lid

North Korea under Kim Jong Il's successor son Kim Jong Un will continue to keep a tight lid on information, said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"Control of information flow remains an important objective for the leadership as a means by which to maintain social control," he said.

North Korea first launched a mobile phone service in the capital Pyongyang in 2002, but banned it after a deadly explosion in a northern train station two years later, possibly concerned that access to such a service could be used in any plot against the hardline communist regime.

When the 3G cellphone service was launched in a surprise deal with Orascom in 2008, many wondered whether it was a sign of a shift in policy.

But the deal allowed only handsets provided by Koryolink to be used and most subscribers are not allowed to make international calls or have access to the Internet from their phones.

Koryolink’s marketing director Ehab Ghaly told RFA that the mobile phone devices provided by the company are imported from China.

Some say that while the Koryolink service does not allow international calls, it is equipped with technology to eavesdrop conversation.

It is believed that the Chinese and North Korean authorities are cooperating to identify any potential threats via the mobile telephone system to the Pyongyang regime.

"There are reports that this type of 3G technology also has a company software which enables the regime to monitor communications, [they are] heavily surveilled," said John Park, a Northeast Asia expert at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.

"[North Korean] defectors are also saying that when it comes to this type of technology from China, if you look at the government level of coordination between the Chinese and the North Koreans, specifically when it comes to state security, this is, I think, an area where the North Korean regime has benefited a lot," Park said.

Internet access

He said that Chinese mobile phones used by North Koreans along the border with China were linked to Chinese cell phone towers, enabling Internet access to North Korean users.

However most of the North Korean users of this facility may be traders linked to the underground economy with little interest in political reforms.

"Their priority focus [is] on expanding their operations and activities in the informal markets—they are basically trying to maximize on whatever opportunities that are available in these informal markets," Park said.

Park said mobile phone ownership in North Korea is helping to differentiate the levels of society in the mostly impoverished nation.

"It is very important in signaling societal levels—the socio-economic background and things like that."

Reported by Borah Jung for RFA's Korean service. Translated by Yoonji Choi. Written in English with additional reporting by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.