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Cell Phones and IT in North Korea: A Double-Edged Sword?

 

HONOLULU (Jan. 7, 2013) -- With Google Chairman Eric Schmidt currently in North Korea on a much speculated-upon visit, there has been increased attention on the recent rise of mobile phone and computer service in the country, a perhaps surprising development in arguably the most closed society in the world. Domestic cell phone service was introduced several years ago by the government in partnership with the Egyptian company Orascom, and already has more than a million subscribers. The government has also expanded a tightly controlled computer intranet system.

USS Pueblo (AGER-2) 05In a recent East-West Center policy brief, security expert Scott Thomas Bruce discusses the benefits and risks that the regime opens itself up to by increasing access to information technology. Project manager on nuclear nonproliferation issues at CRDF Global and a recent POSCO visiting fellow at the East-West Center, Mr. Bruce asserts in the AsiaPacific Issues paper, “A Double-Edged Sword: Information Technology in North Korea,” that “North Korea has made a fundamental shift from a state that limits access to information technology to ensure the security of the regime, to one that is willing to use it as a tool, at least among a certain privileged class, to support the development of the nation.”

While it might appear that the regime has opened itself up to huge risks by allowing this communications technology to expand, Bruce writes, it retains considerable control. For example, both the mobile phone network, called Koryolink, and computer intranet are limited to use within the country. “The North Korean regime has survived by restricting the flow of information to its citizens,” he writes. “However, the rumors of its impending collapse due to the advent of mobile technology and the intranet have been greatly exaggerated.” The deeply ingrained social structure, system of surveillance, and configuration of the IT system make “the notion of a ‘Pyongyang Spring’ unlikely in the short term,” he asserts.

In fact, these communication tools may assist state security’s efforts by “allowing the regime new means of surveillance, censorship, and propaganda.” Bruce gives examples of Koryolink users receiving daily texts of North Korean propaganda, of national discussion boards that can be monitored, and the basic fact that the state controls all of the network and towers, easily allowing it to close down the communications network in the event of an “emergency.”

According to the brief, the digital revolution impacts less than 5 percent of the DPRK population, and this elite group comprises those with the greatest stake in the continued survival of the regime. The expense and limited infrastructure means “mobile phone and intranet users in North Korea are universally privileged, urban North Koreans,” Bruce writes.

Since the 2008 establishment of the cell phone network, more than a million North Koreans have subscribed, but that is still a small fraction of an estimated total population of more than 24 million. And North Korea’s domestic intranet, established in 2002, is also available almost exclusively to social elites, including university students, scientists, and engineers.

Nonetheless, there are both economic and political benefits for the country in even closed communication systems, Bruce writes. On the economic front, these technologies are improving domestic productivity in that they “allow the state to control production, establish standards, and coordinate between the capital and more remote areas of the country in ways that were not previously possible.”

How it might attract international investment, however, is less clear. The limits of the systems present major stumbling blocks for foreign investors. The current cell phone system allows North Koreans to communicate with each other, but not call outside of the country or to foreigners within the country. And a closed intranet is not useful for facilitating global business. Ultimately, says Bruce, these technologies will have their optimal impact only if North Korea opens up considerably more.

The adoption of information technology also may reap political benefits for North Korea. First, as Bruce explains, “the North Korean state has tied the development of science and technology to legitimacy as a nation.” By providing these technologies to even a portion of the population, North Korea attempts to demonstrate that it is “a normal, modern state.” Second, by providing an approved network of information and entertainment, state security can control and monitor the information consumed and perhaps diminish the influence of forbidden foreign media.

Bruce concludes that while North Korea “has worked to neuter the technology to limit the potential for social unrest, the North Korean security services are no longer able to monitor all conversations within the state.” The advent of information technology means that the state has given up on total information control. This is a fundamental shift in North Korea and it will be difficult for them to turn back.

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