North Korea: The Columbus complex

Several days ago, Orascom Telecom issued a press release claiming “that it has been granted the first commercial license to provide mobile telephony services in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) using WCDMA (3G) technology,” and also claiming, “The DPRK has a population of approximately 23 million of which 67% is between the age of 15 and 64 years, moreover, there is currently no mobile services in the country.”

(Although we won’t know if these demographics are correct until the next census).

However, Dr. Aidan foster Carter took issue with these statements this weekend in the Asia Times…

In 2008, not even North Korea is a cellphone virgin. The DPRK and mobile telephony have a tangled history, starting over a decade ago. (There’s a very useful account as of 2005 at this site.) The tale includes a joint bid in 2002 by several South Korean firms to build a CDMA network in Pyongyang, which sank when Washington made it clear it would not let Qualcomm sell the technology.

That false start apart, our Egyptian Columbus is ignoring, and perhaps usurping, a Thai Leif Ericsson in the shape of Loxley. Back in 1995, the Thai conglomerate set up a 70:30 joint venture, North East Asia Telephone & Telecommunication, with the very same partner Orascom has now bagged, KP&TC. NEAT&T had a 30-year “exclusive” concession – or so it thought.

They’re not the only ones. Hyundai used to vie with Samsung to be South Korea’s biggest chaebol or conglomerate. The group’s northern-born founder, the late Chung Ju-yung, was a pioneer of inter-Korean business. His reward was to be fleeced rotten by Pyongyang, which charged almost a billion dollars for a six-year tourist concession – and then coolly offered bits of it to rival operators like Lotte. As a result, Hyundai splintered into separate firms – and no other chaebol will touch the North with a bargepole. Cheating really doesn’t pay.

But back to the luck of the Loxleys. Having begun with a mainly fixed network in the Rason special economic zone in the northeast, several years later in 2003 Loxley rolled out mobile service in Pyongyang – only to see them banned after a mere six months. That was in May 2004, soon after a huge rail explosion destroyed a swath of the northwestern town of Ryongchon – hours after Kim Jong-il’s train had passed through from China. Officially an accident, one rumor is that this was an assassination attempt triggered by a mobile phone.

Whatever the reason, with service still suspended over a year later, Thailand’s then foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, went to Pyongyang in August 2005 to fight Loxley’s corner. He got no joy. North Korea still bars hand-phones, confiscating them from the rare foreign visitor at the country’s Sunan airport and coming down hard on bold souls along the northern border who have illicit mobile phones using Chinese networks. Last October, a factory boss who made international calls from 13 lines – unlucky for some – installed in his basement was reportedly executed in a stadium in front of 150,000 people.

Dr. Foster-Carter gives a great summary of the DPRK’s mobile phone adventures, but I have a couple of data points that flush out the story a bit further.

While visiting Pyongyang in 2005, I personally witnessed an elite North Korean woman (who also claimed to have a reserved room at the Koryo) discretely use a mobile phone, then wrap it in a pink handkerchief a store it in her purse.  Even my guides were shocked, having previously told me that cell phones were recalled for security reasons.  One told me, “She must be special, I am just a normal person.”

Additionally, many journalists to the country are provided with state-sanctioned cell phones to use.  I met a reporter from Reuters who had one.

The full article can be found here:
North Korea: The Columbus complex
Asia Times

Aidan Foster-Carter
2/2/2008

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