Releasing the 3Genie Out of the Bottle – North Korea’s Cell Phones


Cell Phone

Cell Phone by JonJon2k8 via Flickr

Toronto has become somewhat of a hub for things North Korean, and I was fortunate enough the other night to catch a kwan-li-so survivor speak about her experiences in the camps. Particularly heartening to hear were her experiences after her arrival in South Korea, discovering things about the DPRK that her own government dared not share with her. She especially praised a new fangled invention that she’d discovered called “the internet” for providing a treasure trove of human rights related data.

But North Korean defectors are not the only ones who seem to have been deprived of technology. One of the more elderly gentlemen in the room furrowed his eyebrows, confused, and interrupted the speaker. He demanded again the source of the human rights related data.

It was now the defector’s turn to be confused. After a pause of a second, she replied, in all seriousness:

“The INTERNET, sir.”

Obviously, with each syllable emphasized with gusto, she was proud to show off her new found knowledge to a citizen of a country which she had earlier described as “a developed nation.” And on an anecdotal level, it is amazing to see the demand for technology from a person who three years earlier had never even been in front of a computer.

One might think settling in one of the most highly connected nations on the planet could transform any Luddite into an Angry-Birds-playing iPhone user. But this thirst for technology is not only limited to the southern half of the DMZ: North Korean mobile phone adoption has more than quadrupled since 2009. From almost 70,000 users in 2009 to more than 300,000 in September 2010 (or more than 300% growth!), this upswing is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that almost one hundred percent of mobile phone subscribers are linked with a 3G network – a statistic perhaps more remarkable to me, since even I don’t have a 3G capable phone.

In an age where Pyongyang still has trouble feeding its own people, one has to wonder where the regime has the wherewithal to invest in what is still considered a state of the art mobile network. The vast majority of the infrastructure investment comes through “Koryolink,” a P3 project of sorts between Pyongyang and Orascom, an Egyptian conglomerate captained by famed Egyptian telecommunications giant Naguib Sawiris.

Before we dismiss Sawiris for some crackpot investor looking for publicity, it is important to pause to look into who Sawiris is and the house of Orascom that he built. Originally established in 1950, Orascom has grown into one of the largest telecommunications providers in the so-called Middle East North Africa region, with reportedly the largest market cap among publicly traded companies in Egypt. Of note to Canadians, Sawiris is one of the chief investors behind upstart Wind Mobile, which is currently fighting for its own status in Canada.

Sawiris is also notable for having served as an intermediary between the protestors and the government during the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime.

Now before we growl to ourselves why North Koreans need cell phones, especially state of the art cell phones, a 3G network actually makes a lot of sense. Leapfrogging outdated landline technology (a problem for such a mountainous country like the DPRK), and instead opting for smaller (and cheaper) fibre-optic cables is a smart move for telephone-starved North Korea. This has worked in other such settings as well: cell phone usage has skyrocketed in Africa, while the Grameen Bank was justly recognized by the folks in Oslo for implementing cell phone microfinance projects in Bangladesh.

So brushing off that preliminary question, the next question then is what effect such cell phone usage may have on the country. Since the cell phones themselves are not connected to any outside networks, human rights activists may be dismayed to learn that such social media as Facebook and Twitter are not available to North Korean users. In fact, apparently only the most elementary of functions are available, ie. calling and texting. Furthermore, cell phones officially recognized by the regime are obviously only available to those who are deemed loyal enough to use them properly.

This does not mean that cell phones may not have any effect on the North Korean people; rather the opposite may very well be true.

Despite the absence of the internet, cell phones have enabled North Koreans to disseminate information at a far more rapid rate than before. For instance, during the World Cup, North Korea televised its rather disastrous loss to Portugal over live air. The game was cut off rather abruptly after the North Korean side was thoroughly embarrassed; however, according to sources I’ve talked to, the news of this spread like wildfire throughout the capital. No doubt cell phones contributed to this.

Perhaps more worrisomely for the regime, news of the protests in Egypt were also supposedly relayed by North Korean expats in Egypt back to their relatives back home. This instance as well was undoubtedly facilitated by the access that cell phones afford North Koreans.

Yet perhaps a more profound effect that cell phones may have is that these devices, for the first time in their history, give the North Korean people the power of mobilization. With the amount of surveillance that the regime invests in, it is no wonder that “protest” is an unfamiliar term to most North Koreans. One of the cornerstones to mobilizing dissent is the ability to communicate a common meeting ground (in both literal, and figurative terms) to as many people as possible. If cell phones become as ubiquitous in North Korea as they are in such countries as Egypt, or even Tunisia, then the North Korean regime may have let a proverbial genie out of the bottle.

This is because of the third impact that cell phones will have: that any tampering with access and service will undoubtedly send a signal to subscribers that something is amiss. It is true that a cell phone network can be shut down quite easily, and one would be foolhardy to wager that Pyongyang would not do so at the first sign of any trouble. However, the mere act of a shutdown may also have consequences: for instance, the Egyptian protestors knew that when cell phone service was cut off after the first couple of days of protest, the government was finally beginning to take them quite seriously. Shutting down the network may only embolden dissent.

Of course, this is only a short discussion of what may arise within the official Koryolink network. Cell phones outside of this network, most likely found on the border areas with China, pose far greater threats to the regime with regards to the dissemination of information and mobilization (and satellite phones even a larger threat). And as anyone who has visited Toronto’s Pacific Mall may know, cell phones can easily be modified to suit whatever need the user has in mind.

As with any technology, cell phones alone will not bring change by themselves. Yet they give the North Korean people such a powerful tool for dissent, that one wonders if the regime truly believes (or is at least betting) that those who have received this privilege will continue to remain loyalists. Whether it is sharing the lyrics from the latest South Korean pop song or even a politically-sensitive joke, even engaging in what may seem trivial actions chip away at the authority of the regime. In fact, as tools of the individual (as opposed to a tool of the State), cell phones ever so slightly shift the dominance of the North Korean state in favour of the North Korean cell phone consumer.

And when this North Korean cell phone consumer becomes an individual, the more so this individual feels what they have to say is important as well.

Maybe this is Mr. Sawiris’ plan after all. As he said about the protests in his own country, “Democracy is the best guarantee for international investors. My feeling is this is a very good thing that happened because finally we can restore our freedom and our human rights, which we have been deprived of.”

Until this happens in North Korea, Mr. Sawiris will have to find other ways to guarantee his investment.

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