The world’s most closed country’s absolute control over the media became evident during the events surrounding the death of Kim Jong-il and the meticulous staging of his succession. Yet official and unofficial telecom markets have been booming. The new leader Kim Jong-un’s policy regarding basic freedoms appears to be a continuation of his father’s, which understandably worries the international community.
Kim Jong-iI’s death showed the full extent of the regime’s tight grip on the media and information inside the country inasmuch as the news was only announced on North Korean state-controlled television after it had been kept secret for two days.
North Korea online: the digital “self-reliance” theory
Recently, North Korea officially entered the World Wide Web to wage a propaganda war against South Korea and the United States. The regime equipped itself with an army of hackers instructed to destroy websites and practice espionage. Most were trained at Mirim College, an authentic ultra-secure, and clandestine hacker training center. The regime has simultaneously been keeping the great majority of the population away from the Web, even the very limited and ultra-censored national intranet (see the North Korea chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report).
The development of new technologies was one objective of the latest “New Year Editorial,” which set the priorities for the coming months, in keeping with the country’s ”self-reliance” theory, the juche. On the blog NorthKoreaTech.org, Martyn Williams discussed the publication in the official media, of a staged photo of workers inspecting computers in a factory. Mere propaganda?
Yet more and more North Korean media are launching their own Internet websites, such as Voice of Korea. The newspaper of the Workers’ Party, Rodong Shinmun, appears to be adapting to new technologies by sending news to its subscribers’ mobile phones. Transmissions are being made via MMS to compensate for the lack of smartphones.
The popularity of cell phones
Could economic factors be fueling the current telecommunications boom? In January 2011, Kim Jong-il’s warm reception of Orascom Telecom’s Chairman, Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, who set up the country’s 3G mobile phone network via Koryolink, was interpreted by the elites and general public as a sign that the security services would approve an expanded use of the networks – provided, of course, that doing so would not prove a threat to the regime. North Korea is allegedly planning to allow access to the Internet and mobile phones in the Mount Kumgang Special Tourist District, which had previously been the subject of a development agreement with Hyundai.
The explosion in the number of mobile phones – one million 3G subscribers as of early February 2012 out of a population of 24 million inhabitants – may constitute a factor in the opening of this market. However, the network only functions within the country and is still subject to close surveillance. The government, now incapable of monitoring everything, is setting a few examples to keep other users in line.
In addition to the official network, North Koreans living within a radius of about 12 miles of the Chinese border have the (illegal) option of connecting to the Chinese mobile network. The authorities have intensified the crackdowns and fines for simply making an international call, which can run as high as 1 million wons (about $1,100) along with one week of detention. In addition to jamming telephone networks, the North Korean regime has established a surveillance system for calls placed from North Korea. Moreover, the high cost of calls for a portion of the population, and geographical constraints, have limited the use of mobile phones among the rest of the population.
News smuggling along the Chinese border
News smuggling along the Chinese border creates a hard-to-eradicate situation, yet several special units, such as “Group 109,”have been set up – some by Kim Jong-un himself before assuming leadership of the country – to thwart these clandestine activities. The government is also monitoring citizens who travel to China. Any person who criticizes the regime or engages in reprehensible activities such as using the Chinese Internet – which is by no means free – can be denounced.
Despite harsher crackdowns and the illegal nature of such markets, they are extremely active and their use is spreading. They are the place of transit for Korean and U.S. series DVDs and CDs, as well as USB flash drives. Korean associations also distribute, through other channels, stealth USBs containing news about democracy and human rights, and designed to appeal to the country’s dissidents, students and intellectual elites.
Many questions concerning the country’s future and its communications system remain unanswered. Will Kim Jong-un be a more open-minded successor? Or just a front for a regime actually led by a military junta? His past experience as head of a unit responsible for using terror tactics to control the smuggling of “impure” media is raising concern. Yet one thing is certain: the development of an underground economy and the permeability of the Sino-Korean border, combined with an expansion of regime-approved mobile telephony, are key factors for the prospect of a gradual opening up of North Korea.