Yongusil 28: USKI on Koryolink

By | March 08, 2014 | No Comments

Front Cover to Yonho Kim's report on cell phone usage in North Korea | Image:  US Korea Institute

Front Cover to Yonho Kim’s report on cell phone usage in North Korea | Image: US Korea Institute

On March 6, the U.S.-Korea Institute (USKI) at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted a panel to launch research on the state of telecommunications in North Korea conducted by Kim Yonho, staff reporter for Voice of America’s Korea service. The work corroborates what Sino-NK editor Christopher Green had outlined in 2012.

Kim’s research was supported by USKI and VOA. The panel also included Dr. Alexandre Mansourov, professor at SAIS and founding member of the U.S. National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) and Sascha Meinrath, vice president of the New America Foundation, who was able to draw comparisons to the proliferation of new wireless technologies in other contexts. The panel was moderated by USKI Director Dr. Jae Ku.

The report is available here, and outlines network development with Orascom and Koryolink subscriber growth in recent years. Despite Orascom pulling back on its investment due to profits being stuck in North Korea, North Korea is undergoing a veritable boom of subscribers, from a reported one million in January 2012 jumped to two million in January 2013—which, as Dr. Mansourov underscored in his remarks,  may be underreported due to the complicated subscription plans and plan workarounds that North Koreans employ. The number of subscribers, he suggested, may be closer to three million. This is all the more important when one considers the number of landlines in North Korea is 1.1 million—a number that has been static for the past forty years.

Kim Yonho explained that the regime has linked Koryolink to the concept of “strong and prosperous nation” (강성대국), claiming North Korea has reached technological modernity. Koryolink is seen as an expression of the regime’s confidence in control. The regime sees it as a good method to use marketization to maintain regime stabilization. That said, it also can be a way to leak out information on North Korea. Kim told one anecdote from an informant, of a Chinese businessman who had purchased a SIM card in Pyongyang, used it in a Chinese handset, and called Seoul.

Cell phone consumption has played a large role in stabilizing market prices as well as enabling private money transfer systems. It supports the growth of local economies, and also generates foreign exchange. Cell phone use has a macroeconomic function, Dr. Mansourov said, in that it reduces inflationary pressures in North Korea. It boosts and constrains consumption in a limited field, as North Koreans now spend the money earned in the black and gray markets on cell phone devices and top-up cards, often preferring them rather than imported consumer goods like household products. It is worth noting, however, that many cell phones used in North Korea are imported Chinese models or sometimes illicit South Korean smartphones are used to conduct cross-border communication.

While Kim Yonho’s report covers a lot of ground documenting the relationship between North Korea and Orascom, the lingering question in the room seemed focus on the social implications of telecommunications in North Korea: to what extent has the spread of telecommunications transformed North Korean society, and—perhaps more important—what are the prospects for future transformation? Indeed, Kim Yonho addressed the question early in his presentation, claiming that despite observers’ desire for this phenomenon to indicate a latent “Korean Spring,” the reality is we are no where near the tipping point where North Koreans are clamoring to use the devices for anything other than brief communication to coordinate market transactions or consume entertainment content, some of which is produced and supplied from the regime. Many of Kim’s informants reported a high fear of monitoring by the government, which induces self-censorship.

The document provides a valuable insight into the current state of telecommunications in North Korea, as well as highlighting the barriers and opportunities for future uses—both by the state and even perhaps by civil society. It may prove to be a good jumping-off point from which to explore not only the social and governance implications of telecommunications proliferation in North Korea, but also the international economic partnership implications as well, especially since even Orascom is wary as North Korea continues to face economic isolation from the international community.

A video of Thursday’s panel can be watched here.

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