Egypt’s Orascom Telecom, the mobile service provider in North Korea, has invested US$200 million into the project so far but has yet to make a dime, according to website Middle East Online.
Orascom chief Naguib Onsi Sawiris was quoted by the U.K.-based website as saying he would make no more investment in North Korea until the company sees some returns.
Orascom started offering 3G mobile services in North Korea in a joint venture with North Korea’s postal service in 2008. The joint venture, Koryo Link, is 75-percent owned by Orascom and 25 percent by the North. It has managed to attract 2 million subscribers.
The Egyptian company invested another $200 million to build the giant Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang and set up a joint venture bank.
But North Korea apparently barred Orascom from sending profits from the mobile phone service back to Egypt. “Koryo Link is making profits, but North Korean authorities seem to have blocked remittance of the money,” a source in Beijing said.
One should be careful not to jump to a conclusion that North Korea is entering ‘mobile telecommunications revolution.’ North Koreans are still largely denied internet access, and international calls are blocked. Prohibitive top-up rates have made general users reserve their calls for important messages or emergencies. New digital social networking remains an unreachable luxury for the general population and traditional self-censorship prevents politically sensitive conversations on the phone. The government conducts tight surveillance of phone calls and text messages and frequently censors ‘politically inappropriate’ content on them such as South Korean songs and dramas.
However, there are still loopholes that the government cannot perfectly close. For example, a primitive but creative way to make ‘international’ calls supported by illegal Chinese cell phones is in the making, mainly employed now for remittances from defectors in South Korea to their families left in North Korea. However, if brokers can find more profit opportunities, they could surely figure out safer and more creative ways to circumvent technical barriers and the monitoring system. A defector in Seoul has already overcome that technical barrier by connecting to foreign phones with SIM cards bought in Pyongyang. The fact that millions of handheld cameras and digital voice recorders are being circulated should be source of anxiety for the regime. Despite tightly controlled and monitored, the Koryolink network could still potentially widen the loopholes of information flow to and from the outside world.
Kenneth Bae marked a dubious anniversary over the weekend: it has now been one year since the U.S. citizen and Christian missionary was arrested and detained in North Korea.
That makes Mr. Bae the first known U.S. citizen to be detained longer than a year since the Korean War, according to the National Committee on North Korea, which has tracked the fates of this small circle of detainees.
It also raises questions about why Mr. Bae remains inside the country, much longer than Pyongyang tends to hold its U.S. prisoners. (Even the crew of the USS Pueblo, the U.S. Navy vessel captured by the North in 1968, was released after about 11 months.
The mother of Kenneth Bae, the U.S. citizen being detained in North Korea, finished a five-day visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday, but came away with little clarity on when her son might be freed.
In a statement released by the family, Myunghee Bae said that she was able to visit Mr. Bae three times during her stay, and that her son’s health had improved.
But she said the visit also made her “more anxious than ever to bring him home,” pleading with the U.S. authorities to “do everything in their power” to get her son out of North Korea.
While she was careful to thank the North Korean authorities for “generously” allowing her to visit, Mrs. Bae said “it broke my heart to leave him behind,” adding that “the pain and anxiety continue to carve a deep scar on all of our hearts.”
North Korea watchers and those in the diplomatic community have struggled to explain the North’s apparent unwillingness to release Mr. Bae, who has already been detained in North Korea longer than any U.S. citizen in recent memory.
North Korea gave an official reason for the sudden Aug. 30 cancellation of a planned by visit by US State Department special envoy for North Korean human rights Robert King, saying the decision was made because the US “sent out B-52 strategic bombers on the Korean Peninsula.”
The move is being read as a sign of displeasure with Washington refusing to accept Pyongyang’s offer of direct dialogue and demanding “good faith” steps on denuclearization.
The Korean Central News Agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson denouncing the US’s actions in an Aug. 31 talk with the press.
“We had planned to accept the special envoy visit by the US from a humanitarian standpoint and hold serious discussions here on the American currently undergoing reeducation,” the spokesperson reportedly said, referring to US citizen Kenneth Bae, who is currently serving time at a North Korean reeducation camp.
“The US has continued sticking its B-52H strategic bombing in the skies over the Choson [Korean] Peninsula for nuclear bombing drills [during South Korea-US joint military exercises]. By doing this, they instantaneously destroyed a long-awaited climate in favor of humanitarian dialogue,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.
But experts said that the B-52 was likely to have been only a pretext for the discussion, and that the real aim was to deliver a message of displeasure – or warning – after the US failed to respond in “good faith” to Pyongyang’s dialogue overtures.
UPDATE 22 (2013-8-29): According to the Hankyoreh:
A US special envoy on North Korean human rights issues will visit Pyongyang on Aug. 30 to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American currently imprisoned in the country.
The visit by Robert King is the first official trip to North Korea by a senior US official since Kim Jong-un took power, and could mark a turning point in improving North Korea-US relations.
On Aug. 27, the US State Department issued a short, three-sentence press release about the visit but did not hold separate briefing on the issue. The release said that King would “request the DPRK [North Korea] pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment.”
King, who is currently in Japan after visiting China and South Korea, plans to board a military aircraft at a base near Tokyo for a two-day visit to Pyongyang. He is expected to return with Bae.
A senior U.S. envoy will travel to North Korea this week to seek the release of an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the authoritarian country, the State Department said Tuesday.
The visit by Bob King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will be the first public trip to North Korea by an administration official in more than two years and could provide an opening for an improvement in relations severely strained by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said King will request a pardon and amnesty for 45-year-old Kenneth Bae on humanitarian grounds. Bae, a tour operator and Christian missionary, was arrested in November and accused of committing “hostile acts” against North Korea. He suffers multiple health problems and was recently hospitalized.
King is traveling at the invitation of the North Korean government. He will fly to Pyongyang on Friday from Tokyo on a U.S. military plane, and fly out on Saturday.
“We remain deeply concerned about the health and welfare of Kenneth Bae, the American citizen currently detained in North Korea,” the White House said in a statement. “We urge the government of North Korea to grant special clemency to Mr. Bae immediately and allow him to return home with Ambassador King.”
When King last visited North Korea in May 2011 to assess the impoverished North’s food situation, he came home with Eddie Jun, the last American to be held then freed by Pyongyang. Jun, a Korean-American from California, was arrested for alleged unauthorized missionary work during several business trips to the country. He was released on humanitarian grounds.
Bae’s sister revealed earlier this month that he was moved from a labor camp to a hospital after losing more than 50 pounds. Terri Chung, of Edmonds, near Seattle, says her brother, a father-of-three, suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain. He was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. For the past seven years Bae has been living in China, Chung says.
According to U.S. officials, Washington first made its offer to send King to North Korea several weeks ago, but Pyongyang only recently took them up on the offer. Pyongyang has yet to declare it will release Bae.
UPDATE 20 (2013-8-11): Kenneth Bae transferred to hospital. According to the Telegraph:
Bae’s sister Terri Chung said that her brother had until recently been held at a prison for foreigners and put to work ploughing and planting fields.
However, he is suffering from a range of health problems including an enlarged heart and chronic diabetes as well as back and leg pain, necessitating his transfer to a state hospital, she said.
Chung said she learned of her brother’s transfer from the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who visited Bae on Friday. The ambassador, who has met with Bae a handful of times since his detention, has been his only foreign visitor, Chung said.
UPDATE 19 (2013-7-19): Kenneth Bae is writing letters home. According to the New York Times:
The family of Kenneth Bae, the American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, received letters from him in the mail for the first time this past week, telling them that his health is worse and asking them to press the United States government to help secure his release, Mr. Bae’s sister said Friday.
North Korea experts said the message of the handwritten letters — and their method of delivery, which could not have happened without North Korea’s approval — suggested that the authorities there were open to the idea of negotiations on Mr. Bae. That had seemed remote three months ago when he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” against the government.
North Korea said Mr. Bae, 44, was a Christian missionary who had sought to build a clandestine proselytizing base in the country, where the Communist government regards missionary work as sedition.
The possible opening in Mr. Bae’s case came against a backdrop of other indications that North Korea, despite its harsh public language toward the United States, is pursuing multiple ways of pushing for direct contact after months of threats and new weapons tests. So far, the Obama administration has resisted the overtures.
Mr. Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said in a phone interview from her home in Edmonds, Wash., that Mr. Bae had been able to communicate a few times during his imprisonment, which began with his arrest in November, though those contacts were through intermediaries acting on behalf of Sweden’s ambassador in North Korea, who monitors American interests. Then weeks went by with no further word.
“This past week, we were surprised to receive a packet of letters from Kenneth through the U.S. Postal Service, bearing a Pyongyang postmark,” she said. “The packet contained four letters, dated June 13th, addressed to his wife, his mom, me and his supporters.”
She said that “all the letters contained the same message — Kenneth’s health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home.”
Ms. Chung said her brother suffered from diabetes, an enlarged heart and back problems.
She declined to share the letters but said the family had conveyed their contents to officials at the State Department. Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman in Washington, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Mr. Bae was sentenced at a time of particularly high tensions between the United States and North Korea over the North’s nuclear weapons program under its young new leader, Kim Jong-un, further complicating any possible diplomatic efforts aimed at securing Mr. Bae’s release.
North Korea said that Mr. Bae had been working as a Christian missionary with the aim of overthrowing the North Korean government. In a video of an hourlong talk, given to a Korean church in the United States in 2011 and posted online, Mr. Bae detailed his activities inside North Korea.
The postmark on Mr. Bae’s mailed letters to his family suggested they were written at about the same time that the North Korean authorities had permitted a pro-North Korea group based in Tokyo, Choson Sinbo, to interview him in prison. A videotape of that interview, broadcast July 3 on CNN, showed Mr. Bae looking distressed and thin, his head shaved, dressed in a stained blue jumpsuit with his prison number, 103. His message was similar to those in the letters: an appeal for the United States government to help secure his release.
“Although my health is not good, I am being patient and coping well,” Mr. Bae said in that interview. “And I hope that with the help of the North Korean government and the United States, I will be released soon.”
In what appeared to be an effort to show the outside world that the North Korean penal authorities had been treating him well, Mr. Bae was seen seated in a comfortable cell with a radiator and a window. The video also zoomed in on what was described as his daily work schedule, posted in Korean and English, showing he was given three meals and had four rest breaks in between field labor. No other inmates were seen at the prison, and its precise location was unclear.
Diplomats who have dealt with North Korea said the unspoken message in both the video and the letters was that the North Korean authorities wanted to see more publicity about Mr. Bae as part of their broader effort to seek direct contact with the United States government.
UPDATE 18 (2013-7-3): The DPRK has released video footage of Kenneth Bae and an interview. See CNN and NK News.
UPDATE 18 (2013-5-15): Kenneth Bae has been transferred to a prison. According to KCNA:
American Citizen Begins His Life at “Special Prison”
Pyongyang, May 15 (KCNA) — Pae Jun Ho, an American citizen, started his life at a “special prison” on Tuesday.
Pae was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for his anti-DPRK crime, an attempt to topple the DPRK, at the trial held on April 30, according to Section 60 (an attempt at state subversion) of the DPRK Criminal Law.
DPRK Supreme Court Spokesman Exposes Crimes of American Pae Jun Ho
Pyongyang, May 9 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Supreme Court of the DPRK gave the following answer to a question raised by KCNA Thursday as regards the assertion made by the U.S. government and media about the alleged unreasonable legal action taken against American Pae Jun Ho who committed crimes against the DPRK, claiming that he was not tried in a transparent manner and it was trying to use this issue as a political bargaining chip:
Pae set up plot-breeding bases in different places of China for the purpose of toppling the DPRK government from 2006 to October 2012 out of distrust and enmity toward the DPRK. He committed such hostile acts as egging citizens of the DPRK overseas and foreigners on to perpetrate hostile acts to bring down its government while conducting a malignant smear campaign against it. He was caught red handed and prosecuted while entering Rason City of the DPRK, bringing with him anti-DPRK literature on Nov. 3 last year.
Pae visited different churches of the U.S. and south Korea to preach the necessity and urgency to bring down the DPRK government. He was dispatched to China as a missionary of the Youth With A Mission in April, 2006. After setting up plot-breeding bases disguised with diverse signboards in different parts of China for the past six years, avoiding the eyes of its security organs, he brought together more than 1 500 citizens of the DPRK, China and foreigners before whom he gave anti-DPRK lectures. He invited even south Korean pastors hell-bent on the moves to escalate confrontation with compatriots to give lectures for malignantly slandering the Juche idea of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the socialist system in the DPRK and instigating them to the acts to bring down its government.
He planned the so-called “Jericho operation” to bring down the DPRK through his anti-DPRK religious activities from December 2010 to March 2012. In order to carry out the plan he infiltrated at least 250 students who had been educated at the plot-breeding bases operated by him into Rason City under the guise of tourists. He failed to set up an anti-DPRK base at Rajin Hotel in Rason City.
He collected and produced several anti-DPRK videos to make the false propaganda sound plausible and showed them many people in a bid to egg them onto activities to bring down the DPRK government. He bribed Song Je Suk and other citizens of the DPRK on foreign tours in an effort to get them involved in activities to topple the DPRK government. He dared commit such hideous crime as hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK.
The DPRK Supreme Court held a trial of Pae at its court behind closed doors on Apr. 30, 2013 at his request in accordance with Section 270 of the DPRK Criminal Procedure Law.
As he refused pleading, the court did not allow the presence of a counsel, pursuant to Section 275 of the above-said law.
In the course of hearing Pae admitted all his crimes and they were clearly proved in an objective manner by evidence and testimonies made by witnesses.
The court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in consideration of candid confession of his crimes though they are liable to face death penalty or life imprisonment for an attempt at state subversion according to Section 60 of the DPRK Criminal Code.
Pae will be fully guaranteed the right as a prisoner according to the DPRK law while in jail.
Pyongyang, May 2 (KCNA) — A trial of Pae Jun Ho, an American citizen, took place held at the Supreme Court of the DPRK on April 30. He was arrested while committing hostile acts against the DPRK after entering Rason City as a tourist on Nov. 3 last year.
The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labor for this crime.
Pyongyang, April 27 (KCNA) — The preliminary inquiry into crimes committed by American citizen Pae Jun Ho closed. He entered Rason City of the DPRK on Nov. 3 last year for the purpose of tour and was arrested for committing crimes against the DPRK.
In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it. His crimes were proved by evidence.
He will soon be taken to the Supreme Court of the DPRK to face judgment.
UPDATE 11 (2013-1-28): In the Korea Herald, Namkung refers to serious charges leveled against Mr. Bae:
“My understanding is that he has been accused of serious crimes including plotting to overthrow the regime and assassinating the leadership,” Namkung said in an email interview.
“Richardson’s hope was to see the detainee, Kenneth Bae, and if possible, bring him home. However, North Korea was not cooperative in this regard.”
For weeks, North Korea has refused to allow the United States government to contact a Korean-American man detained in the communist nation, the State Department said Friday.
“As we said about three or four weeks ago, we had contact through our Swedish protecting power. We have not been able to have another contact since then. We continue to ask,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing.
She was responding to a question on Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator who was arrested by North Korea’s security authorities in early November.
UPDATE 9 (2013-1-11):Retuers reports that Richardson delivered a letter for Bae:
Richardson was unable meet with Korean-American Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tourist who was detained in North Korea late last year, but he said he was able to give a letter from Bae’s son to authorities.
“I delivered the letter to North Korean officials,” Richardson told Reuters on Friday. “They said they would provide that to him.”
UPDATE 8 (2013-1-10): KCNA reports that the Richardson delegation has left the DPRK:
Delegation of Google Inc. of U.S. Flies Back
Pyongyang, January 10 (KCNA) — The delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, left here on Thursday.
No reports of any meetings were reported while the delegation visited the DPRK.
The delegation did hold a press conference at Beijing Capital Airport. Bloomberg reports:
“As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world,” Schmidt told reporters today at the Beijing airport after the visit to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. “The government has to do something — they have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government in North Korea has not yet done. It is time now for them to start or they will remain behind.”
Schmidt said that North Korea’s existing mobile-phone network, operated in a joint venture with Orascom Telecom Media & Technology Holding SAE, could be retooled to offer Internet access. There are about 1 million phones on the network, Schmidt said.
“It would be very easy for them to turn that on,” Schmidt said.
Mr. Richardson said he told North Korea’s top vice minister for nuclear negotiations that Pyongyang should temper its nuclear-development efforts. “We need dialogue on the peninsula, not confrontation,” he told reporters. He also said he pushed Pyongyang for a moratorium on ballistic-missile tests, and that officials responded by insisting that the recent satellite launch was for peaceful reasons.
“I must say I personally disagree,” he said.
Mr. Richardson also said he pressed North Korean officials about an American who is being detained there, and was encouraged by their statements that judicial proceedings will begin soon and that the detainee’s health is good. It wasn’t clear whether Mr. Richardson’s delegation met with the detainee, 44-year-old Kenneth Bae, held since late last year on unspecified charges.
UPDATE 7 (2013-1-9): The Richardson delegation visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. There are no photos or videos of this trip. No doubt Gov. Richardson would be nervous about pictures of him paying homage to the memories of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
UPDATE 6 (2013-1-9): KCNA reports that the Richardson delegation is touring Pyongyang:
Delegation of Google Inc. of U.S. Tours Pyongyang
Pyongyang, January 9 (KCNA) — A delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, Wednesday visited the Grand People’s Study House here.
The guests went round several reading rooms and lecture rooms, being briefed on the fact that people and students acquire knowledge about modern science and technology and improve their cultural attainments at the study house.
They also visited the E-library of Kim Il Sung University, Korean Computer Center, etc.
The visit to Kim Il-sung University was featured on the 1-8 evening news. See it here.
The visit to the Grand Peoples Study house was featured on the 1-9 evening news. See it here.
Schmidt and Cohen chatted with students working on HP desktop computers at an “e-library” at the university named after North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. One student showed Schmidt how he accesses reading materials from Cornell University online on a computer with a red tag denoting it as a gift from Kim Jong Il.
“He’s actually going to a Cornell site,” Schmidt told Richardson after peering at the URL.
Cohen asked a student how he searches for information online. The student clicked on Google — “That’s where I work!” Cohen said — and then asked to be able to type in his own search: “New York City.” Cohen clicked on a Wikipedia page for the city, pointing at a photo and telling the student, “That’s where I live.”
Kim Su Hyang, a librarian, said students at Kim Il Sung University have had Internet access since the laboratory opened in April 2010. School officials said the library is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, even when school is not in session, like Tuesday.
While university students at Kim Chaek University of Science and Technology and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology also have carefully monitored Internet access — and are under strict instructions to access only educational materials — most North Koreans have never surfed the Web.
Computers at Pyongyang’s main library at the Grand People’s Study house are linked to a domestic Intranet service that allows them to read state-run media online and access a trove of reading materials culled by North Korean officials. North Koreans with computers at home can also sign up for the Intranet service.
But access to the World Wide Web is extremely rare and often is limited to those with clearance to get on the Internet.
At Kim Chaek University, instructors and students wishing to use the Internet must register first for permission and submit an application with their requests for research online, Ryu Sun Ryol, head of the e-library, said.
But he said it is only a matter of time before Internet use becomes widespread.
“We will start having access to the Internet soon,” he said in an interview last month. He said North Korea is in the midst of a major push to expand computer use in every classroom and workplace.
UPDATE 5 (2013-1-7): Even though this delegation is run by Bill Richardson for “humanitarian” purposes, KCNA is emphasizing the business angle. Here is the KCNA report of the delegation’s arrival:
Delegation of Google Inc. of U.S. Arrives
Pyongyang, January 7 (KCNA) — A delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, arrived here on Monday by air.
Here is KCNA video that has been ripped and uploaded to You Tube:
UPDATE 4 (2012-1-5):Wired published a statement from Richardson’s office which details who is in the delegation:
Governor Bill Richardson will travel to North Korea next week on a private humanitarian mission. The delegation will consist of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Dr. KA Namkung, Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen; as well as some staff members.
Since no media is accompanying the delegation, Gov. Richardson will have a press availability at the Beijing Airport on Thursday, January 10th.
UPDATE 3 (2013-1-3): According to Reuters, the US Department of State has criticized the Richardson delegation to the DPRK. According to the article:
The State Department said on Thursday the time was not right for Google Inc Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and former diplomat Bill Richardson to visit North Korea, which drew international criticism for a rocket launch last month.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said Schmidt and Richardson would be traveling as private citizens, not representatives of the U.S. government.
“Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful,” Nuland told reporters, citing North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket in December. “They are well aware of our views.”
“We are obviously aware of the trip that has been announced,” [Nuland] said, later correcting herself to say that the department was aware of media reports about the trip.
“They are private citizens. They are traveling in an unofficial capacity,” she said. “They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. They are private citizens and they are making their own decisions.”
On Wednesday, Google did not respond directly to a question about whether Schmidt was going to North Korea, although a spokeswoman’s response suggested a visit would not be for company business.
UPDATE 2 (2013-1-2): According to the Associated Press, Bill Richardson is reportedly headed to the DPRK. Though the article does not mention it, he will likely be working for the release of Mr. Bae. The news of Mr. Richardson’s visit is overshadowed by his travel companion, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. According to the article:
Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea on a private, humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month, according to two people familiar with the group’s plans who asked not to be named because the visit had not been made public.
The trip would be the first by a top executive from U.S.-based Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider, to a country considered to have the most restrictive Internet policies on the planet.
UPDATE 1 (2012-12-21): The DPRK announces it has arrested another American. According to KCNA:
American Arrested in DPRK for Committing Crime
Pyongyang, December 21 (KCNA) — The Korean Central News Agency released the following report on Friday:
American citizen Pae Jun Ho who entered Rason City of the DPRK on Nov. 3 for the purpose of tour committed a crime against the DPRK. He was put into custody by a relevant institution.
In the process of investigation evidence proving that he committed a crime against the DPRK was revealed. He admitted his crime.
Consular officials of the Swedish embassy, which look after interests of the U.S. in the DPRK, visited him Friday.
Legal actions are being taken against Pae in line with the criminal procedure law of the DPRK.
Original Post (2012-12-13): The DPRK is allegedly holding another American citizen. According to the New York Times:
A 44-year-old American citizen has been held in North Korea for a month, a human rights activist in Seoul said Thursday, addressing unconfirmed reports that had circulated in the South Korean news media for several days.
The American, Kenneth Bae, runs a travel company that specializes in taking tourists and prospective investors to North Korea. He had visited the North several times without incident before being detained in early November, according to the activist, Do Hee-youn, who heads the Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees, based in Seoul. Mr. Do said he had learned of Mr. Bae’s detention through a mutual friend in China.
South Korean news reports on Thursday said that Mr. Bae, a naturalized United States citizen born in South Korea, was detained after escorting five European tourists into North Korea through the city of Rajin on Nov. 3. The Europeans were allowed to leave the country, the reports said. North Korea operates a free-trade zone in Rajin, which is near the Russian border, but it has had difficulty attracting foreign investors.
Mr. Do said he had few details about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Bae’s reported arrest. The South Korean daily newspaper Kookmin Ilbo cited an unnamed source as saying that Mr. Bae was detained after North Korean security officials found a computer hard disk in his possession that they believed contained delicate information about the country. Mr. Bae was later transferred to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, for further investigation, according to that report.
Mr. Do said that Mr. Bae was interested in helping orphans who beg for food in North Korean markets. “The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda,” he said.
After decades of being divided into a population of a small and mostly invisible elite and everyone else, a middle class of about 2 million people is on the rise. These are the people who have mobile phones, use taxis and show a remarkable diversity in clothing and accessories. The local 7-inch tablet computer, ‘Samjiyŏn’, sells for US$180 and comes with the Android operating system and a number of apps such as a dictionary, changgi (Korean chess), and a collection of the works of the two deceased former leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
The quality of life in the capital differs significantly from the rest of the country. Some observers believe this will increase discontent; but it also smartly diverts attention away from the shiny examples of foreign metropolises spread on pirated DVDs and USB sticks, and offers the population a domestic Xanadu. The key question for social stability is thus not what peasants in the countryside dream about, but what middle-class Pyongyangites aspire to. Meanwhile, the number of solar panels and small windmills is rising, which is the countryside’s solution to having less privileged access to power.
Despite all the changes, many of the old problems remain unsolved. Prices rise, speculation is rampant and frustration grows in sync with corruption and an ever-more obvious gap between the poor and the new middle class. It would be unrealistic to imply that Kim Jong-un even theoretically had the chance to improve the lives of the majority of his people significantly within a year of taking over. But he has not been idle. Inequality in North Korea is a sign of deepening change. A growing income and welfare gap between individuals indicates that the economy is on the move away from socialist egalitarianism towards capitalist diversity.
Read the full report here:
North Korea’s rolling economic reforms
East Asia Forum
North Korea plans to import about 100,000 smartphones from China this year, a report said Tuesday.
China is planning to export a total of 500,000 mobile phones to the North and 100,000 of them will be smartphones, the Washington-based Radio Free Asia report said, referring to a Chinese government official’s posting on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website.
Chinese smartphones sell for about 1,000 Chinese yuan (US$163.27) per unit in China, but the price tag comes to 2,800 yuan per unit in North Korea, the report said, adding profits from the price difference will go into the pocket of the North Korean regime.
Read the full story here:
N. Korea to import 100,000 smartphones from China this year
Yonhap (via Global Post)
The number of mobile phone owners in North Korea has exceeded the 2 million level, a report said Friday, indicating that one out of every 12 North Korean citizens are using wireless telephone services.
Washington-based Radio Free Asia reported the information, citing a statement released on Wednesday by Naguib Sawiris, the chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding.
The number of wireless phone users stood at around 100,000 in 2009 and 500,000 in mid-2011 before jumping to the 1 million level in February 2012 and the 1.5 million mark in November of the same year.
The Egyptian firm currently provides third-generation wireless service covering 15 major North Korean cities, including Pyongyang, as well as 100 other smaller cities in the communist country with a population of about 24 million.
Read the full story here:
Number of N. Korean mobile phone users tops 2 mln: report Yonhap
North Korea’s sole 3G network operator has managed to double its subscriber base in a little over a year and is about to hit 2 million users.
Koryolink launched service in the final days of 2008 and has become one of the most visible foreign partnership success stories in the country.
The network operator is jointly owned by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding (OTMT) and North Korea’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Orascom holds a 75 percent majority stake with the remainder in the hands of the government.
Before Koryolink’s service began, mobile phones were an unusual sight in Pyongyang, but that has changed in recent years. Visitors speak of seeing scores of citizens talking and texting from mobile handsets.
2 million subscribers is approximately 8.3% of the North Korean population. The majority of subscribers are likely to be in Pyongyang but we do not have any data on the internal distribution of subscriptions. All subscribers are paying in hard currency, though none of it has been repatriated from the DPRK.
A researcher for Torrenfreak has used a database system called Scaneye to track the DPRK’s use of BitTorrent (peer-to-peer file sharing). Here are his results:
One of the titles that jumps out immediately is “Net Monitor for Employees Professional,” which seamlessly fits the country’s profile. Ironically, the downloader in question did very little to cover his or her own tracks.
There are also other needs for which BitTorrent can give a helping hand, on the adult entertainment front for example. The screenshot below shows a selection of the adult clips, including the work of Japanese porn actress Marica Hase and her U.S. colleague Alice Frost.
Aside from spy tools and porn there are plenty of less controversial titles listed as well. “The Complete Home Decorating Idea Book” for example, which may have been out of stock at the local book store.
American movies and TV-shows are also hard to obtain in North Korea it seems, but the pirated editions are easily accessible online.
“The Following” for example, a TV-show about a psychotic serial killer who leads a cult of serial-killing followers. Or the horror film Death From Above, which features several pro-wrestling stars in the cast.
In other news from the trip – the 3G access for foreigners has now been restricted to long term visitors/residents of Pyongyang only and tourists are not permitted to use this service. They can still buy simcards to make calls but no internet access available.
Hanna, Jean Lee, and David Guttenfelder are the only individuals of whom I am aware that have used Instagram/Twitter from inside the DPRK. Since they regularly enter and DPRK, they might get a pass as “long-term visitors”. It looks like the idea of thousands of tourists instantly uploading images to the web was a little more than Pyongyang could handle for the time being. Still, we know the capacity is there, we just have to wait for them so flip the switch again.
UPDATE 2 (2013-3-7): Here is CCTV (China) coverage (in English) of the new cell phone policy:
North Korea will soon allow foreigners to tweet, Skype and surf the Internet from their cellphones, iPads and other mobile devices in its second relaxation of controls on communications in recent weeks. However, North Korean citizens will not have access to the mobile Internet service to be offered by provider Koryolink within the next week.
Koryolink, a joint venture between Korea Post & Telecommunications Corporation and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding SAE, informed foreign residents in Pyongyang on Friday that it will launch a third generation, or 3G, mobile Internet service no later than March 1.
The announcement comes just weeks after North Korea began allowing foreigners to bring their own cellphones into the country to use with Koryolink SIM cards, reversing a longstanding rule requiring most visitors to relinquish their phones at customs and leaving many without easy means of communication with the outside world.
The two changes in policy mean foreigners in North Korea will have unprecedented connectivity while living, working or traveling in a country long regarded as one of the most isolated nations in the world.
However, wireless Internet will not yet be offered to North Koreans, who are governed by a separate set of telecommunication rules from foreigners. North Koreans will be allowed to access certain 3G services, including SMS and MMS messaging, video calls and subscriptions to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper — but not the global Internet.
Chinese-made Huawei cellphones sold by Koryolink are not cheap, with the most basic model costing about $150, and the governments restricts North Koreans from phoning abroad or foreigners from their cellphones. Still, mobile phones have become a must-have accessory among not only the elite in Pyongyang but also the middle class in cities such as Kaesong and Wonsan.
Foreigners, meanwhile, can now purchase SIM cards at the airport or at Koryolink shops for 50 euros ($70). Calls abroad range from 0.38 euros a minute to Switzerland and France and more than 5 euros a minute to the U.S. Calls to South Korea remain prohibited.
Starting next week, foreigners will be allowed to purchase monthly mobile Internet data plans for use with a USB modem or on mobile devices using their SIM cards. Prices for the service haven’t been announced yet.
“We will provide both a USB modem and your current own SIM card to get access to Internet, respectively costs 75 euro and 150 euro upon registration, with different levels of charge standard, from 400euro/10G, 250euro/5G, to 150euro/2G for USB and 10 euro for SIM card per month,” he said.
According to Richie Fenner, a tour manager at China based Young Pioneer Tours who reported the news today, explained that GPS enabled devices are allowed in the country. He told us:
“When we were coming in on the train, they asked us to show us our phones. The customs official asked if the first one he looked at had GPS, which it didn’t, so he handed it back. But then with the iPhones and other modern phones when we told them they had GPS, he just handed them back and gestured that we just put them in our bag.”
Thinking that the phones might just be sealed upon the group’s arrival to Pyongyang, Fenner explained that to his surprise the local guides explained a new policy meant that foreigners can now keep their cell phones in their possession. But that didn’t mean they could be used. Fenner explained, “Wthout a North Korean sim card, the phones are useless. I asked if we could get North Korean SIM cards and our guide said that it might be possible in the future”.
American tourist Sato Shi who joined the tour group by plane (U.S. citizens may not take the train) confirmed that the policy has been applied to the airport, too. “When we went to the customs they were checking our bags, saw my cellphone and then just gave it back to me and said “Hey, just keep it with you”.
Smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy are a rare commodity in North Korea. Fenner explained that his North Korean colleagues were very interested in trying them and playing games throughout the tour. “It’s all very new for them, I don’t think they’ve seen iPhones and Smartphones before”.
Given the lack of SIM cards and network access, the Young Pioneer tour group explained they could only really use their phones to take photos, play games, and use as an alarm. Young Pioneers today explained on their website that the news shows North Korea’s intent to “make tourism easier and a larger part of the economy”.
“Just fill a registration form at the Customs with your phone’ s IMEI number, you can bring your own phones to DPRK,” said a unnamed Egyptian technician.
“If you want to make international calls, the WCDMA 3G mobile phone owners can purchase our Koryolink SIM card, which costs 50 euro,” the technician said.
For decades before, foreigners visiting the DPRK must leave their cellphones at the Customs and can pick them up on departure.
“We have tried hard to negotiate with the Korean security side, and got the approval recently,” said the Egyptian, noting that “it has nothing to do with the Google trip.”
In fact, foreigners still can not really use the Koryolink 3G network, with no internet access allowed yet. The Koryolink staff said that the mobile internet service for foreigners will be opened soon. “It is not a technical problem, we just wait for the DPRK authority’ s approval.”
There are 1.8 million Koreans using 3G cellphones across the country since 2008, which supports MMS and video call. But their mobile phones can neither make international calls nor connect to the Internet. Furthermore, Koreans and Foreigners can not make calls between each other due to their SIM cards set by different segments.
Kyodo offers video of people purchasing the KoryoLink SIM cards: