“War Criminal” 365 Days a Year: On the Purported Cell Phone Ban in the DPRK

By | February 13, 2012 | No Comments

David Matthew, Analyst and Technology Editor for SinoNK.comis pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Edinburgh University in the UK with a focus on security, trade, and technology in the Asia-Pacific. His essay at The Diplomat’s “ASEAN Beat”, taking on the subject of recent US-Singapore alignments, was also published today.  — Editor-in-Chief 

‘War Criminal’ 365 Days a Year: On the Purported Cell Phone Ban in the DPRK

by David Matthew

News circulated over the past two weeks that North Korea had outlawed cell phone usage for 100 days during a period of national mourning. The UK’s Daily Telegraph, citing a report from South Korean NGO Good Friends, indicatedthat the primary reason for the ban was not to commemorate the Dearly deceased, but, rather, for regime stability. As food shortages increase in the country and North Korea suffers from a recordcoldspell, it entirely is plausible that more people, aided by cell phones, are trying to escape across the border to China during a period of regime transition.

While this cell phone ban story was picked up and run on influential sites like Forbes and ZDNet, it managed to gather steam at a host of other publications too. Despite its popularity though, there seems to be little concrete information available on the ban or its details (the Telegraph points to the Workers’ Party as the source of the ban).

The basic argument for the ban traces an underlying tension between the kind of information that one might convey on a cell phone (say, about living conditions in North Korea compared to its southern neighbor) and the propaganda that North Korea prefers its citizen to receive in places like Rodung Sinmun. The problem with this narrative is twofold:

1) the legal mobile operator in North Korea, Orascom Telecom’s Koryolink, is already tightly circumscribed. Information from the outside should not get in via phone or internet.

2) Orascom Telecom’s CEO flew to North Korea from Orascom’s Cairo headquarters and was in Pyongyang at the beginning of February. This occurred as Orascom Telecom’s sharepricessoared on news that Koryolink had in fact surpassed 1 million subscribers.

This story of a cell phone ban in North Korea does at least have a plausible historical basis; namely, North Korea did outlaw cell phone usage once before, in 2004. However that was not in response to fears about government reform or defections, but evidence relating a cell phone to an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il.

As the million plus users testify, Koryolink has been a resounding success with the DPRK public since its launch in December 2008. Moreover, it is a key source of income for the government in Pyongyang as the Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation – a state owned enterprise – possesses a 25% stake in the network.

Additionally, reports about Chairman of the Presidiium Kim Yong Nam meeting with Orascom Telecom’s CEO during his early February visit seem odd in light of a ban on Orascom’s phones. An outright ban on cell phone would, obviously, cut into Orascom’s profits in North Korea; a 100 day period, the ban’s reported length, would leave a strong mark on quarterly earnings (which cover around 90 day periods). An indication of this impact should be evident in Orascom Telecom’s average revenue per Koryolink subscriber in its next report. The most recent figure on Orascom Telecom’s website shows its revenue per user in the DPRK was $13.90 for Q3 2011 – a reduction in this amount could be evidence of a large scale cell phone ban.

[And Orascom’s CEO, clearly, is mindful of the need to be profitable, and appreciative of his monopoly in the DPRK, as seen below (h/t @nepotist) — Ed.]

Of course Orascom will still make money on subscription-based payment models such as year-long plans, but one of the products the company touts in its most recent quarterly report is the success of booster packs and add-ons, features that would go unpurchased and unused under such a ban. KCNA even reportedthat Kim Jong-un received a present from Orascom Telecom’s CEO during his visit, once again indicating that, at the very least, the visit was conducted on relatively friendly terms.

Lastly, Oracom Group, Oracom Telecom’s parent company has major contracts with the DPRK for construction and refurbishment, including for the iconic Ryugyong Hotel. An outright ban on cell phones that impacts either Koryolink’s growth or its earnings could have knock-on effects for other Orascom projects in the country.

While there may very well be a cell phone ban of some sort in North Korea, it doesn’t clearly benefit any of the parties involved. It is worth mentioning that cell phones not within the Koryolink walled garden are banned, but these have always been banned by the government. To be in possession of one of the phones smuggled across the DPRK-Chinese border would make someone a “war criminal” 365 days a year, not simply 100.

Open Communications Devices as Weapons? Consider Julian Oliver’s “Transparency Grenade,” Berlin 2012, h/t @crazypulsar

No Comments

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, perhaps this is really about exemplary punishment for people in places near the Chinese border using phones on Chinese networks. IIRC Koryolink phones can’t make international calls, but someone on the border with a Chinese phone could use it to contact people smugglers on the other side. That would explain why, according to the Telegraph, the North Korean authorities equate phone usage with defection.

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