Smartphone Fever Hits North Korea; Kim Looks For Cure

Smartphone Fever Hits North Korea; Kim Looks For Cure

North Korea, one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries, is rapidly adding users to its mobile phone network. But don’t expect that to increase the information flow to dissidents. The proliferation of gadgets is making North Korea’s security services increasingly nervous – and the best dissent technologies are still illegal and risky.

South Korea’s unification minister Um Jong-Sik, citing figures from North Korea, says the Hermit Kingdom now has 450,000 users on its official mobile phone network, a 50 percent increase over the year before. North Korea’s dissidents won’t be able to use these phones to organize any opposition to Kim Jong Il’s reign, though. The network, provided by Egypt’s Orascom, doesn’t let North Koreans dial outside the country or access the internet.

Moreover, Um claims the antiauthoritarian wave has made the North extra nervous about any technology that might spread news of protests in the Arab world. “After watching the spread of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, North Korea is expected to strengthen its control further over any elements endangering its system,” Um tells Agence France-Presse. The North suspended phone rentals to visiting foreigners in January, a move some interpreted as an attempt to head off any spread of news about the Middle East uprisings.

Whether or not North Korea genuinely fears news of the Middle East protests spreading, it’s clear that Kim’s cops are getting antsy about the availability of unauthorized tech gadgetry in the country.

The Korea Herald reported earlier this month that North Korea is cracking down on any kind of personal information technology, demanding that citizens give an accounting to the government of all thumb drives, MP3 players, mobile phones and other tech gear.

North Korea’s official net isn’t likely to be a dissent hub anytime soon. Citizens in the North can log on to the country’s own intranet service, “Kwangmyong” (.pdf), but it’s completely cut off from the rest of the web and offers only access only to sanitised domestic sites, state propaganda like the Korean Central News Agency and government-provided email addresses. (If you’re lucky enough to be Supreme Leader Kim or among a select group of the ruling class, you can get your lolcat and YouTube fix on a satellite link.)

But illegal tech gadgetry smuggled across the border from China is changing the equation. You can now buy smuggled 3G phones from China – as many as a thousand North Koreans have, by one estimate – and try to snag a signal near the border with China for net access.

The unlicensed mobile phones have allowed families in the North to clandestinely connect with foreign intelligence services in South Korea and the United States and spread news through the rumour mill. It’s not without risk, as illegal phone use can carry stiff punishments, including death.

DVDs of South Korean soap operas and CDs of South Korean pop music are also sold clandestinely in the North. They’re hardly the most political media, but in the bleak, Stalinist North, lighthearted glimpses of a free and prosperous life in the South are seditious – and can earn consumers harsh prison sentences, too.

Photo: John Pavelka/Flickr has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.