Barriers to Entry: Cellular Telephony in the Digital DPRK

By | November 25, 2012 | No Comments

Pyongyang Traffic Officer Chatting Away | Image: Joseph Ferris III

Barriers to Entry: Cellular Telephony in the Digital DPRK

By Christopher Green

Information Technology: The Freedom to Know | Despite burgeoning interest in North Korea, some pants have been caught down by the way the state has been changing technologically in recent years. One example of this change, as Roger Cavazos notes in his appraisal of Scott Bruce’s take on technology featured right here at SinoNK today, has been the (re)introduction of cell phones by the joint venture firm Koryolink. After the Yongcheon explosion of 2004, allegedly an assassination attempt triggered by a cellphone, it was widely assumed that North Korea’s brief dalliance with cellular communications for domestic civilians was over.

However, it should not have been at all surprising that North Korea finally decided to allow nationwide access to cellular telephony once again. This is because the liberating effects of such a move are more readily controlled than is sometimes assumed.

Yes, it is true that cell phones are capable of providing ways and means for people who would otherwise be highly atomized to communicate with each other more easily. However, only the naïve would conclude from this that there is regime-subverting organizing underway, or even possible, in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. After all, 60+ years of repression is very a long time indeed, and if there is one thing the Kim family dynasty has been generally very good at over much of that period, it is the methodical elimination of opposition to its rule.

I hear time and time again that North Korean civilians don’t talk about the Kim family by phone, even if they do talk about it in other ways. They know (as do we, because the technology is no more native to North Korea than a Samjiyeon tablet computer running Google Android) that the regime monitors conversations conducted in this way. Yes, it is technically feasible to get around the monitoring system; the technology is automated in the first instance, and therefore listens for keywords rather than assessing conversation content per se. But who would bother to take that type of chance? Technology is not the key here; the sensible and natural proclivity to avoid risk is.

Lest we should forget, North Korean civilians have only really just started to discuss the Kim regime between trusted family members, face-to-face. The day when an average conversation about the relative price of rice in Shinuiju and Hoiryeong is splattered with invective about the state of Kim Jong-un’s policy mix is still some way off.

This is not the only problem. There is a narrative that continues to assert that the North Korean jangmadang (market) system is some form of great leveler, one that allows the common North Korean with his or her poor chulsin songbun to climb the social ladder and gatecrash the middle class in a way that was previously impossible under the totalitarian social control of the Kim Il-sung era. Yet this is, alas, an ageing narrative, and one that is increasingly at odds with reality. There are now multiple barriers to market entry, each and every one designed to claw back a little bit more control over precisely who is able to make money in the DPRK and hand that control, like a latter day Public Distribution System, back to the government.

In other words, North Korea’s markets may have sprung phoenix-like from the depths of famine-induced despair, creating a level playing field where, for the briefest spell, the quickest to move won the race. But the Wild West days are over, and ever since the regime began to legalize the market system in the first half of the 2000s, its wealth-creating potential has been significantly co-opted, and its equalizing potential reduced.

The inauguration of Koryolink in 2008 | image via KCNA

The Hidden Costs of Procurement: Cell Phones as “Scarce Goods” | There is also, of course, the problem of obtaining a cell phone in the first place. The process of cell phone procurement is an example par excellence of bureaucratic inefficiency, which is of course precisely what is needed by a regime that incentivizes loyalty through the highly unequal distribution of opportunities to demand rents.

First, the individual wishing to obtain a cell phone must go to his or her local Communications Technology Management Office (CTMO; in provincial capitals only) or a subordinate arm of the same (in smaller cities) to obtain a three page application form. This form, once filled in, must be stamped by the Ministry of Public Security officer assigned to the individual’s workplace or, for those without official workplaces, attached to his or her local people’s unit.

Having paid off the public security official in cigarettes or cash (more often the former, according to this author’s sources, because it arouses less friction) he or she must submit the stamped form to the CTMO or equivalent, whereupon it is sent, with all the speed one would expect of the North Korean transportation network, to the Ministry of Communications in Pyongyang. At this point there is little else to be done but go away and pitch the proverbial tent, because at best it takes a month for the staff in the revolutionary capital to process the application.

Assuming, and it should not be assumed, that those checks done in Pyongyang don’t yield any incriminating evidence of wrongdoing (don’t forget, the North Korean legal system makes every adult a criminal in one way or another, something which can come back and haunt any individual whenever “rents” are desired), the individual will eventually be ordered back to his local communications office, whereupon he will be handed a payment form. He or she must then take this form to a bank, and engage with the separate, and no less inefficient, bureaucracy therein in order to pay the majority (though not all) of the cost of a phone and Koryolink network activation fee.[1]

The payment form, duly stamped by a functionary at the bank, must then be taken back to the CTMO or equivalent, whereupon it can be exchanged for half the stamped application form originally sought from the ministry in Pyongyang. Here, finally, the individual reaches a watershed moment: this form can actually be exchanged for a cellular telephone!

However, the pain is actually quite a long way short of being over. In a moment of uncharacteristic efficiency, the actual cell phone shop is often directly outside the communications office, but in a moment of karma-balancing inefficiency, it doesn’t open much, carries a limited amount of product and is pitifully understaffed. As a result, queues are long, as are waits. Assuming an individual lives long enough to reach the front of such a queue, he or she is finally offered the opportunity to hand over another $70-$100 and depart the scene with a brand new phone.

Indirect Barriers to Mobility: Nothing is Easy in the DPRK | The cell phone-acquisition process described above indicates the following: any given individual who wants to privately operate a cell phone in North Korea must have not only time, but also money (in foreign currency), the ability to travel at will and a good network of associates in the security forces willing to stamp forms in exchange for a modest payment of some kind. It is true that there is a thriving market in second-hand phones, which does alleviate the cost burden to some degree. However, changing the name of a registered user requires both current and future user to leave their work places and travel, often quite long distances, to the communications office together, while the future user must also pay bribes in order to avoid being met with coughing, sucking of teeth and “ooh, that could take a while”-type negativity, meaning that this is no easy task, either.

Thus, while there is no direct connection between ownership of a North Korean cell phone and the social status ascribed to an individual as a result of his or her chulshin songbun, there is plenty of indirect influence, for it all harks back to one point that all those who abandon North Korea tend to make; cash is king. And if cash is king, then enrichment opportunities are absolutely essential for anyone wanting to own a cell phone. Yet those opportunities are very hard to access, even via the jangmadang, for the North Korean authorities are as hell-bent on controlling the market economy and its digital trappings today as they have always been.


[1] It is not beyond the realms of possibility that this aspect will change with the introduction of a more widespread, domestic electronic payments system, but it is an open question when such a system will take root in the capital and filter down to regional centers.

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