North Korea Brings Back Cell Phones

A mobile phone service is launched in North Korea, but who will have access to it is unclear.

2008-12-16
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Panmunjom Guards 305 North Korean border guards at Panmunjom, November 2007.
AFP

SEOULNorth Korea's only cell phone service resumes this week after being abruptly halted by the government in the wake of the 2004 Ryongchun train disaster. But residents of the isolated Stalinist regime are proving reluctant to come forward and sign up.

Egyptian telecom company Orascom launched its advanced mobile phone network in North Korea on Monday, at an initial cost of U.S. $465 per account opened.

Chinese traders who regularly travel back and forth to North Korea said local residents showed little enthusiasm for the new service, which cost more than U.S. $900 to set up before the Ryongchun explosion.

North Korean authorities confiscated all phones and interrupted service in 2004 in an attempt to prevent further leaks of information to the outside world through the use of cell phones.

The resumption of service also comes amid a crackdown on private citizens using foreign currency, which may make it hard for all but the country's political and military elite to get their hands on a mobile phone.

Concern over suspension

North Korean defector Kim Kwang-jin, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, said the fact that the government had once pulled the plug on North Korean cell phones meant that it could easily do so again.

"In the beginning, people will be hesitant, because a few years ago many of them made a big investment in cell phones. But service was suspended abruptly, so they are still very concerned that might happen again," Kim said.

"People are also worried that the ability to pay such a high amount of money for a cell phone may raise a red flag and bring them under scrutiny by the North Korean authorities."

Foreign currency is required for many purchases in North Korea, but the exchange of foreign currency is subject to strict government controls.

Pyongyang has recently stepped up its efforts to enforce those controls amid fears that the black market will prove uncontrollable.

"Their reluctance to purchase a cell phone is the result of fear that the service may be interrupted again, and of apprehension over having their wealth and finances investigated by the authorities after having formally made such a big purchase," Kim said.

"As the North Korean authorities are cracking down on those who possess foreign currency, people may also be reluctant to purchase cell phones, since they are afraid to disclose that they may be in possession of such currency," he added.

Korean-Egyptian venture

Egypt's Orascom Telecom announced in January it had won the right to offer the mobile service and said it would invest U.S. $400 million in the project.

The 25-year-license to operate was granted to Orascom joint venture 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.

North Korea first established a mobile phone service in November 2002 but then banned ordinary citizens from using it, recalling unauthorized handsets out of fear that they were being used to leak information about the regime to the outside world.

Most foreigners are banned from using cell phones while in North Korea, although a network for government officials is believed to exist in the capital, Pyongyang.

North Koreans in northern border areas use mobile phones operating through relay stations in China, but they are also subject to periodic crackdowns by the authorities.

Orascom is also reportedly funding construction work on the 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, a Pyongyang landmark suspended for nearly 20 years because of funding problems.

Original reporting in Korean by Jung Young. Acting Korean service director: Francis Huh. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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