Archive for the ‘Orascom Telecom Holding’ Category

Orascom’s Ora Bank closes

Monday, December 5th, 2016

According to the Egyptian Daily News:

Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding will shut down Orabank, its affiliate bank in North Korea, due to US sanctions on the nation, according to an announcement on Sunday.

The company, owned by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, added in a note to the Egyptian Exchange that shutting down the bank in Korea is a result of force majeure due to the sanctions imposed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control on North Korea.

Orascom noted that its subsidiary in Korea will transfer all cash and liquid assets.

The company added that its subsidiary, Koryolink, will continue operating in Korea despite the sanctions.

Shortly after the banks closing was announced, Naguib Sawiris announced his resignation as CEO of OTMT . You can read the Press Release and coverage in Forbes.

According to the Chosun Ilbo:

Naguib Sawiris resigned a day after Orascom decided to shut down a branch of its affiliate bank Orabank in Pyongyang under sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and the U.S. Treasury Department.

“Sawiris has done brisk business in the U.S. and Europe and has much of his assets in the West,” a source said. “So he has no choice but to look for an exit in the face of the sanctions.”

Sawiris has a U.S. passport and is therefore directly affected by sanctions that penalize U.S. citizens from doing business with the North, according to investigative website Finance Uncovered.

Orabank in Pyongyang is linked to Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, which has been blacklisted by the U.S. for serving as a funnel for the regime’s nuclear weapons development.

Here are links to previous posts on cell phones, Orascom, and Ora Bank.

Here is coverage in North Korea Tech.

 

Read the full story here:
Sawiris shuts down affiliate bank in North Korea due to US sanctions
Egyptian Daily News
2016-12-4

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Naguib Sawiris is a US citizen!

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

According to Finance Uncovered:

Naguib Sawiris is a multi-billionaire telecoms magnate. A truly global citizen, he was born a Coptic Christian in Egypt and educated in Europe. His business empire is controlled from a luxurious tower on the banks of the Nile, yet according to Companies House filings he is usually resident in the the UK, where amongst other things, he runs a hedge fund. As Sawiris confirmed during a recent case before the UK supreme court, he has US citizenship.

He is also deeply involved in global politics: a large donor to Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid, a power broker in his native Egypt and a regular visitor to Davos. When trouble flared in Cairo after the overthrow of President Morsi, he was the then special envoy to the Middle East Tony Blair’s first port of call. That port being in San Tropez.

Sawiris’s fortune derives from managing the telecoms empire of his family’s business Orascom. Orascom Telecom Holdings was a global telecom player particularly in the developing world.

The company held licences across the globe, from Zimbabwe, Syria, Iraq, Italy and North Korea. When the majority of Orascom Telecom Holdings was sold to Russian telecom giant, Vimplecom in 2011 for $6.6bn, Koryolink, the North Korean cell phone network, was one of the few assets Sawiris held onto.

The North Korean adventure
After building telecoms networks in a number of challenging countries around the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) must have seemed like the final frontier for Sawiris.

At some point before 2008 he was introduced to the opportunity by Ri Chol, who at the time was the North Korean permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. It has been suggested that in addition to his diplomatic duties, Chol was also responsible for managing Kim Jong Il’s private bank accounts in Europe.

In 2010 Ri Chol was recalled to North Korea to be vice chair of the DPRK’s committee of investment.

After the initial introduction, Sawiris visited the country several times to build relationships with the North Korean leadership. He has been photographed with Kim Jong Il. The vice premier of the DPRK cabinet was at Koryolink’s grand opening in Pyongyang.

“It’s personal you know, I went drinking with these guys at night, we made jokes, we get along well, and I’ve done nice stuff there,” Sawiris told Euromoney in 2011. “I’ve repaired their tramways, I’ve recovered their hotel, donated medicine when they had the floods.”

The hotel mentioned by Sawiris is Pyongyang’s Ryugyong Hotel. When construction began in 1987, it was the first building outside the United States of over 100 stories. Originally intended to be a display of North Korea’s might, the giant windowless concrete pyramid became a national embarrassment for the best part of two decades after building stopped in 1992. It resumed in 2008 by Orascom and the exterior has now been finished, although reports from the country suggest it is still an empty shell. Documents from Orascom indicate that the company spent over $30m on the hotel.

A profitable enterprise
The effort Sawiris made to gain access to the North Korean market seems to be paying off. Koryolink is making a lot of money in North Korea. The 2014 annual accounts of Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holdings (OTMT) show that the company made revenues in excess of $340m in its North Korea mobile phone (GSM) segment.

A Finance Uncovered analysis of Orascom Telecom’s 2012 annual accounts shows that the company’s two million North Korean subscribers – equivalent to 10% of the country’s population – made average revenue per user of $13 a month. These are huge revenues in a country where wages are very low. The best paid workers are said to be paid around $70 a month, according to recent reports. In 2013 average earnings were thought to be around $25-30 a month.

Recent news reports indicate that the company is having difficulty repatriating profits, and that the North Korean regime may have even appropriated the company. This is denied by OTMT.

How Koryolink manages to be so profitable is a mystery. Networks in other parts of OTMT’s former empire are far less lucrative. Djezzy, the phone network Sawiris set up in Algeria achieves an average revenue per user of $9 according to the 2012 annual report of Global Telecom Holdings despite Algeria having a GDP per capita more than four times North Korea’s. In Pakistan, Mobilink, another former Sawiris company with 36.1m subscribers generates $2.50 per user. In Bangladesh it is $1.70 per user.

Sawiris splits the substantial profits of the cell phone business with the North Korean regime, who also have a stake in the business. According to some analysts the North Korean Regime has earned between $400m-$600m from the cell phone industry up to early 2013.

Orabank
Cell phones are not Sawiris’s only business in North Korea. Buried in the list of subsidiaries in the Orascom Telecom and Media Holdings accounts is a reference to another enterprise, Orabank. This bank is not mentioned anywhere else in the annual report.

According to a report from Bloomberg, Orabank was opened the day after Koryolink in a ceremony in Pyongyang. An organisational chart filed with the SEC at the time of the Vimplecom merger in 2011 shows that Ora Bank NK is a subsidiary of Oracap Far East, of Malta.

With the huge difficulty faced by companies moving money into and out of North Korea, it is not unusual for a company operating in the country to set up their own bank. But these tend to be “hotel room operations” – nothing more than a telex machine in a hotel room.

Orascom’s accounts suggest that Orabank is a much more substantial enterprise. The first quarter report of 2009 from Orascom Telecom Holdings shows that Oracap Far East paid $1m for a licence to operate a bank, had $180,000 in cash and had committed to invest $127m.

The 2010 annual accounts of Orascom Telecom Holdings shows that the company wrote off $48m that it had invested in Orabank.

What exactly Orabank does is difficult to know. Other than these brief snapshots, there is no mention of Orabank’s revenues or business activities in Orascom annual reports.

Sensitive links
Sawiris’s various businesses in North Korea may raise some eyebrows in Washington DC. Not only is Sawiris a political mover and shaker, documents found by Finance Uncovered show that Koryolink and Orabank has a link to the US defence industry.

Sawiris’s North Korean businesses are owned by OTMT in Egypt. The majority of OTMT is owned by OTMTI in Luxembourg. According to a Federal Communications Commission application form submitted by another Sawiris company, Accelero Capital Investment Holdings, OTMTI is in turn is owned by companies based in the Cayman Islands. The eventual owner is the Marchmont Trust, a Jersey family trust. The trustee, who looks after the Trust’s assets is the February Private Trust Company, which is based in the UK Crown Dependency and tax haven, Jersey.

As of 2012, one of the five directors of the February Private Trust Company was Kevin Struve. At the same time, Struve was also a director of Contrack International, now Contrack Watts, a major US defence contractor and another Sawiris family owned business. As of last year, the latest data available at the Virginia SEC, Mr Struve is still listed as a director of Contrack.

We tried to contact Struve to ask him whether it is appropriate for the director of a US defence contractor to control businesses with high level links to the North Korean regime. Struve did not respond to our questions.

Sanctions
Sawiris’s dealings with the North Korean regime raise issues with regards to sanctions. Few people we spoke to, including senior US officials, appeared to know that Sawiris was a US citizen, and so subject to the US sanctions regime.

US sanctions prohibit any US citizens from dealing with a person or entity appearing on the sanctions list. A spokesperson for the US Treasury, although refusing to comment on this case, said that the prohibition is drawn purposefully broad in order to cover a variety of interactions.

According to official North Korean media reports, Orabank is a joint venture with the North Korean Foreign Trade Bank (FTB). The FTB was designated by the Secretary to the Treasury Jacob Lew in 2013 as “a key financial node in North Korea’s WMD apparatus”.

Sanctions only apply to designated entities after entities are placed on the sanctions list. If Sawiris and his companies stopped dealing with the Foreign Trade Bank after it was placed on the sanctions list, then it has complied with the law.

But Orascom Telecom and Media Technology Holdings (which Naguib Sawiris is the CEO of appears to openly acknowledge a risk that business may be harmed by “enhanced enforcement” of sanctions. Buried in the small print of the OTMT annual report is the following disclaimer (emphasis added):

“There can be no assurance that if international sanctions are changed or subject to enhanced enforcement, the Company’s operating subsidiary in DPRK will be able to finance its operations transfer funds to and from the company or operate its mobile phone network in DPRK.”

We put it to Sawiris that the disclaimer in his company’s annual report was akin to an admission that the company may be breaking sanctions in North Korea. We also asked whether he had ever dealt with people or companies on the US Department of Treasury Sanctions List. We were told by a spokesperson that Mr Sawiris does not comment on these issues as a matter of policy.

It is unclear if Sawiris or OTMT has broken US sanctions. But the facts we have uncovered do raise serious questions.

For several years Sawiris has been free to operate a bank in North Korea, a joint venture with a financial institution which later was considered by the US Treasury to be financing the country’s WMD programme. He has shared the profits of his burgeoning mobile phone business with the regime, and appears to have given tens of millions of dollars to their projects.

All this was done as other Sawiris family companies received hundreds of millions of dollars from the US Department of Defense.

As world leaders around the world consider how sanctions against North Korea should be toughened in the wake of their latest nuclear test, perhaps next time they are in Davos, they should ask their old friend Naguib.

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Orascom (OTMT) loses control of KoryoLink

Friday, November 20th, 2015

UPDATE 2 (2016-1-1): According to the Wall Street Journal:

Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris made billions of dollars from a global telecommunications empire that operated in authoritarian states from Zimbabwe to Pakistan. Now he is being dealt a potentially painful setback by one of the global economy’s biggest pariahs: North Korea.

Mr. Sawiris’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding SAE built a highly profitable mobile phone business with around 3 million customers in the isolated nation, as cellphones became popular with wealthier North Koreans and the state eased restrictions on communications. The business earned around $270 million before taxes and depreciation on $344 million in revenue in 2014.

But in the last few years, a state-run competitor emerged in North Korea, and Cairo-based Orascom hit problems trying to repatriate profits. Orascom said in a November filing in Egypt it had lost control of its 75%-owned North Korean venture, Koryolink, and struck the venture from its balance sheet, removing hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

Mr. Sawiris, chief executive officer of both Orascom and the North Korean venture, is now trying to negotiate a solution. “We are still hopeful that we will be able to resolve all pending issues to continue this successful journey,” he said in a statement accompanying the filing.

Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

How North Korea resolves the dispute could bear on its plans to cultivate foreign investment to develop the moribund economy. In recent years, Pyongyang has created more than 20 special economic zones for investors and announced local regulations intended to reassure foreigners.

In November, North Korea state media said foreign firms would be able to repatriate profits from one zone in the far northeast of the country “without restriction.”

The setback for Mr. Sawiris, 61 years old, underscores the risk of doing business in North Korea, where foreign firms have complained that property and profits have been appropriated by the government. In 2012, a Chinese mining company said North Korea arbitrarily took over its metal-processing facility in the country. Pyongyang in turn publicly accused the firm of failing to meet investment commitments.

Orascom says talks with the North Korean government to resolve its difficulties have included a possible merger with the rival carrier, Byol. However, North Korea has indicated it wouldn’t give Orascom management control of the combined entity and those talks have stalled, the Egyptian company said in November board minutes, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. As a result, “control over Koryolink’s activities was lost” according to accounting rules, the company said in its latest earnings report.

Few companies venture into North Korea. But for the outspoken Mr. Sawiris—who describes himself as a “freedom fighter” on his verified Twitter profile, and who has experience operating in difficult environments—a bet on the hermit kingdom made sense.

Since 1997, Orascom has built and run mobile networks in more than 20 countries across Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Its strategy: Load up on debt to build networks quickly in risky markets with little or no infrastructure, betting on rapid growth and strong returns, then sell when the market matures and more players materialize.

Orascom operated in many politically unstable nations such as Yemen and Bangladesh. In most cases, the gamble paid off. In 2003, Orascom paid $5 million for one of Iraq’s first mobile network licenses. Its local partner faced kidnappings of staff and attacks on property from insurgents, but in 2007 Orascom sold its Iraq operations for $1.2 billion to a Kuwaiti company.

There have been some setbacks. Orascom’s joint venture in Syria with a company run by a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad fell apart in 2002 when a Syrian court handed the Egyptian company’s share of the venture to the local partner.

In 2011, Mr. Sawiris sold most of his telecommunications assets to Russian mobile operator VimpelCom Ltd. in a deal worth $6 billion. Koryolink was one of the few assets he kept.

Orascom’s operations in North Korea began when the country awarded Koryolink the rights to operate its only mobile network from late 2008 through the end of 2012. North Korea had scrapped an earlier project in the country with a Thai firm in 2004, because of fears the network was vulnerable to spies.

Koryolink started with around 18 foreign staff based at a hotel in the capital city, according to Madani Hozaien, Koryolink’s chief financial officer from late 2008 to mid-2009. North Korea’s tight restrictions on travel made it difficult to manage network facilities and deals with local counterparts were hard to put together, he said.

“Once we had an agreement with one group, another team would appear and we’d have to start again,” he said.

Ihab Shafik, a human resources and administration manager for Koryolink from 2009 to 2012, said the company’s North Korean staff sometimes operated independently. “They built GSM [Global System for Mobile communications] towers without informing us and we discovered them later,” he said.

North Korean authorities gradually from 2008 allowed most members of the public to sign up for mobile service, although they can only make domestic calls and don’t have Internet access.

While mobile phones remain very expensive for most North Koreans, visitors to Pyongyang report that they’re a common sight. Defectors from the country say they have become increasingly important information tools for traders as North Korea’s unofficial market economy has grown in recent years. North Korea state media has even touted the country’s own smartphone, although it is generally considered a rebranded Chinese model.

Orascom’s problems in North Korea appear to have built during the final year of its exclusivity clause in 2012. Koryolink’s annual report for the year noted “restrictions on cash transfers from local currency” in explaining a $272 million cash balance held inside the country, that more than doubled to June 30.

The company’s board meeting to ratify first quarter results in 2015 was postponed by over a month “due to the delay of the negotiations with the North Korean side to solve the problems arising out of the transfer of dividends, the currency exchange rates and the operational problems that has recently emerged,” minutes from the meeting reviewed by the Journal said.

Orascom’s share price fell sharply on the Egyptian stock exchange after the company announced it was removing the North Korean operations from its consolidated earnings. The price has risen recently after Orascom announced plans to buy two financial companies, part of Mr. Sawiris’ effort to move away from telecommunications.

Experts on the North Korean economy say Orascom’s difficulty in repatriating funds is largely due to North Korea’s inability or reluctance to convert Koryolink’s cash to foreign currency from North Korean won at the official exchange rate. North Korea suffers constant shortages of foreign exchange and its own currency is worthless outside its borders.

In 2013, Orascom also was caught up in U.S. sanctions on North Korea, when a bank it had set up with a North Korean partner, which Koryolink uses for financial transactions, was barred from accessing the U.S. financial system.

Here is additional coverage in the Chosun Ilbo.

UPDATE 1 (2015-12-11): Orascom CEO claims to still control KoryoLink, but cannot obtain hard currency or get it out of the country.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-11-20): Martyn Williams broke the story here.

The first problem is that Orascom could not repatriate its profits:

Orascom’s efforts to get its profits out of North Korea have been unsuccessful, partially because of international sanctions imposed on the country but mainly by the government’s refusal to let the money go.

To transfer money out of North Korea, Orascom needs permission from the government and it hasn’t been granted, despite it being a partner in the joint venture.

The government hasn’t acted because it can’t afford to.

The profits are held in North Korean won, but the currency isn’t traded internationally and the government’s official rate is set artificially high, at 100 won to the U.S. dollar. At that rate, Orascon’s holding at the end of last year was worth $585 million.

But at the black market exchange rate, which is effectively the real value of the currency in North Korea, the cash is worth only $7.2 million. And therein lies the problem. The government can’t afford to pay the money at the official rate, and it can’t be seen to officially recognize the black market rate. So the two sides have spent months locked in talks about what to do.

Secondly, the DPRK government launched a second cell phone network to compete with KoryoLink, and efforts to merge the companies have been successful:

The issue came to light in an auditor’s report in June, and a month later Orascom dropped a bombshell: It said the North Korean government — supposedly its close partner — had set up a second carrier to compete with Koryolink.

With its options limited, Orascom entered merger talks to combine Koryolink with the new carrier. The North Korean government has agreed to the move in principle, but so far nothing has happened.

What’s more, the North Korean government has apparently proposed that it be the majority partner in any new venture that’s formed.

That led to a dramatic statement from Orascom when it reported its financial results Monday — “in the group management’s view, control over Koryolink’s activities was lost.”

Sawiris appears to hold out hope, but he might be out of moves.

“We are very proud of the success of our operation ‘Koryolink’,” he said in a statement. “We have around 3 million people today carrying our phones in the DPRK. We are still hopeful that we will be able to resolve all pending issues to continue this successful journey.”

Anna Fifield also followed up in the Washington Post and reported on the name of the new KoryoLink competitor:

This comes after Orascom discovered that North Korea was starting a competitor to Koryolink called Byol, and then began discussions about merging it with Koryolink, thus presumably extracting even more money from Orascom.

Byol (별) translates to English as “Star”.

Here is the OTMT financial report which explains the company’s position (PDF).

Here are screen shots of the relevant sections in the report:

OTMT-report-2015-11-associate

And

OTMT-report-2015-11-other-operator

OTMT-report-2015-11-other-operator2

A small correction needs to be added to the OTMT report, the Central Bank does not set the official exchange rate. That is set by the Foreign Trade Bank.

As Marcus Noland and I have pointed out, North Korea needs a big FDI win to inspire more large-scale foreign investment and modernize its investment regulatory framework, but debacles like this, Xiyang, and the KIC (referring here to the fact that it was too entangled in political risk to be a reliable investment without official subsidies and guarantees) reinforce the view that the DPRK is still too risky to become an attractive investment hub–and this excludes additional problems owing to the country’s weapons programs and human rights abuses.

 

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How a telecom investment in North Korea went horribly wrong

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In PC World, Martyn Williams of North Korea Tech has an interesting piece on the story of Orascom in North Korea:

An Egyptian company that launched North Korea’s first 3G cellular network and attracted as many as 3 million subscribers has revealed that it lost control of the operator despite owning a majority stake.

The plight of Orascom Telecom and Media Technology in North Korea takes place against a backdrop of rapid telecom modernization and a public eager to adopt a new technology. It’s ultimately a lesson in the perils of getting into bed with a government that’s not known for respecting international law.

When Orascom announced plans to launch the 3G service in 2008 it met with skepticism. The North Korean government severely limits its citizens’ ability to communicate and has jailed or killed anyone who speaks out against the regime. The regime has regularly threatened war against its foes and was under sanctions at the time for a 2006 nuclear test.

But Orascom Chairman Naguib Sawiris saw something else: a land that technology had forgotten. He’d successfully built cellular networks in other developing countries, and North Korea seemed a perfect candidate, especially with its low fixed-line penetration.

Read the full story:

How a telecom investment in North Korea went horribly wrong
PC World
Martyn Williams
11-17-2015

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KoryoLink drops subscription fees

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

According to Radio Free Asia:

A dramatic decrease in the monthly rate for cellphone services in impoverished North Korea has seen the number of subscribers skyrocket, but sources inside the reclusive nation say the data may be misleading, as people sign up for two mobile phones at once in order to avoid massive overage fees.

The cost of using a cellphone on Koryolink’s 3G network dropped from 25 yuan (U.S. $4) per month at the end of 2013 to a maximum of 1,000 won, or 1 yuan (U.S. $0.16), in 2014, prompting North Koreans to sign up in droves, according to an official with the Wireless Service Department in Yanggang province.

The surge in subscriptions has prompted the government to open a number of storefronts staffed with agents to deal with the demand and sell cellphones associated with the services, the source said, speaking to RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.

“Since last year, cellphone agencies have been established in each city and province,” he said.

“In Hyesan (the administrative center of Yanggang province), a cellphone agency was set up next to the Kim Jong Suk Art Theater (named after the grandmother of current regime leader Kim Jong Un), where many people often gather.”

According to the source, the base rate of 1 yuan per month provides subscribers with up to four hours of free calls and 20 text messages. Calls and other services in North Korea are limited to usage within the country only, except for resident foreigners, tourists and selected elite members of society.

The Wireless Service Department official did not provide statistics for the increase in subscribers.

Orascom, an Egyptian telecom company that jointly operates Koryolink with the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation, has said around 2.4 million, or 10 percent, of the country’s estimated 24 million people were signed up with the carrier by the end of June 2014.

In comparison, Orascom said Koryolink had hit 2 million users in May 2013, adding a million subscribers in the 15 months prior.

Inflated numbers

A second source from North Hamgyong province told RFA that the recent increase in subscriptions, linked to the purchase of new phones, had earned praise from central authorities.

“Last year, North Hamgyong province took first place in national sales of cellular phones and the head of its Wireless Service Department received a commendation,” the source said, adding that the capital Pyongyang came in second place, followed by North Pyongan province.

But while the base rates for cellphone services are cheap, subscribers are charged exorbitant fees totaling as much as 100 times the cost of monthly services if usage limits are exceeded, he said.

Because four hours of free talk time and 20 text messages are insufficient, the source said most merchants and officials choose to purchase two cellphones and subscribe to plans for both, allowing them to double usage each month and avoid the high overage fees.

The double purchasing of phones and monthly services had artificially inflated the number of subscribers, he said.

Skeptics have questioned the accuracy of Orascom’s claim of 2.4 million subscribers, saying that—after subtracting a standing army of 1 million soldiers who cannot own cellphones due to security reasons and at least 3 million children aged 10 years or younger—it would suggest more than one in 10 of North Korea’s mostly poverty-stricken citizens use mobile services.

Reports also say that handsets which operate on Chinese networks across the border are regularly smuggled into the country, further complicating estimates of how many cellphone users there are in the North.

North Koreans are reportedly allowed to access only certain 3G services with their cellphones, including SMS and MMS messaging and video calls, but not the Internet.

Read the full story here:
Dramatic Decrease in Mobile Rates Draws Subscribers in North Korea
Radio Free Asia
2015-07-01

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DPRK imports of smart phones in 2014

Friday, January 30th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s smartphone imports from China surged to a record high last year, a sign of a growing number of people there being connected to the net, according to data released Friday.

North Korea brought in US$82.8 million worth of smartphones from China in 2014, almost double the amount recorded a year earlier, according to the Seoul-based Korea International Trade Association.

It marked the largest volume since 2007, when related data were introduced.

Imports of portable data-processing devices, including laptops, also jumped 16 percent on-year to $23 million in 2014 despite a 3-percent decline in the North’s overall imports from China in the year.

Around 10 percent of the communist nation’s 24-million residents reportedly use smartphones, with its 3G network run by Koryolink, a joint venture with an Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom.

See also this post with additional data on DPRK-china trade in 2014.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s smartphone imports from China hit record
Yonhap
2015-1-30

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Koryolink subscriptions hit 2.4 million

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Martyn Williams reports that KoryoLink subscriptions have hit 2.4 million.

You can read previous posts on the DPRK’s mobile phone network here.

Kevin Stahler ranks North Korea’s cell phone market penetration here.

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Orascom’s Audit 2013

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

UPDATE: I got the official exchange rate wrong in the initial post. I have corrected it.

ORIGINAL POST: A couple of weeks ago news came out that Orascom was holding off further investment in the DPRK until it was able to repatriate some of its profits. A few days later Orascom issued a press release denying this and asserting that they are looking for new investment opportunities in the DPRK.

This correction raises questions about just how significant Orascom’s profits in the DPRK are. Information on the growth of KoryoLink has been scarce since it was spun off into a subsidiary company (it no longer appears in Orascom shareholder reports). Martyn Williams did us all a favor, however, and found the Jan-Sept 2013 audit for Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding (OTMT), the company now holding the KoryoLink portfolio.

I have uploaded the audit to this site, and you can download it here (PDF). It contains the consolidated financial reports for OTMT, including KoryoLink.

The audit is posted as an image PDF (so the text is not searchable or easily copied into blog posts), but I offer some key data below. The caveat to keep in mind is that all of the USD$ calculations appear to be determined by converting DPRK Won (KPW) at the official rate (appx 100KPW/1US$ and 130KPW/1 Euro). This may be the appropriate accounting standard to employ, but needless to say, this radically overstates the market value of the firm’s position since the current black market rate of the won is approximately 8,000KPW/1US$:

OTMT-screenshot-1-2013-09

US$422 million is $42.2 billion North Korean Won (converted at the official rate). Converted back to US$ at the black market, the total is just US$5,275,000.

OTMT EBITDA (Earnings before income tax, depreciation, amortization) for the period Jan-Sept 2013 are listed as USD$178,962,000. This is just  US$2,237,025 million at the black market rate.

Capital expenditure from Jan – Sept 2013 is listed as USD$40,931, 000 (Appx $665,128 at black market rate).

KoryoLink’s tax exempt status ended on Dec 15, 2013.

The audit specifically addresses the difficulties of operating in North Korea’s official financial sector:

OTMT-screenshot-2-2013-09

Some additional documents from June of this year can be found here and here. I am not an accountant and already have enough on my plate, so if there are any researchers out there that want to take a crack at this stuff, please do.

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Orascom seeks repatriation of profits – or new opportunities?

Friday, December 6th, 2013

UPDATE 1 (2013-12-8): According to an OTMT press release:

Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding Denies Reports about Freezing Investment in North Korea

Cairo, December 8th, 2013, Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding S.A.E. (“OTMT”) announced today that recent reports in some media sources claiming that OTMT is freezing its investment in North Korea are entirely inaccurate. Where OTMT currently has no plans for new investments in North Korea, the company is open for new opportunities in this market, in which it has been investing for six years. The company has not announced any intentions to freeze investments in the North Korean market.

-END-

About Orascom Telecom Media and Technology

OTMT is a holding company that has investments in companies with operations mainly in Egypt, North Korea, Pakistan, Lebanon and other North African and Middle-Eastern countries. The activities of OTMT are mainly divided into its GSM, media and technology and cable businesses. The GSM activities include mobile telecommunications operations in Egypt, North Korea and Lebanon. The media and technology division consists of OT Ventures/Intouch Communications Service and the OT Ventures Internet portals and other ventures in Egypt, including LINK Development, ARPU+ and LINKonLINE. The cable business focuses on the management of cable networks.

OTMT is traded on the Egyptian Exchange under the symbol (OTMT.CA, OTMT EY).

And according to New York Telecom Exchange:

***Orascom Telecom has refuted recent media reports that it is freezing investment in its North Korean mobile network subsidiary.The company said that the reports “are entirely inaccurate.”In a statement it said that where OTMT currently has no plans for new investments in North Korea, the company is open for new opportunities in this market, in which it has been investing for six years.The company added that it “has not announced any intentions to freeze investments in the North Korean market.”However, it is worth noting that many companies do things without making announcements about them and the statement did not explicitly confirm that it would be spending any more money on its North Korean network, only that it was open to further opportunities.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-12-6): According to the Chosun Ilbo:

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.

The only firm, of which I am aware,  that has been able to repatriate significant sums of hard currency is Pyeonghwa Motors. Most traders take out North Korean goods/products that they can then sell for currency.

Read the full story here:
Egyptian Telecom Halts Investment in N.Korea
Chosun Ilbo
2013-12-6

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38 North on the expansion of the DPRK’s mobile phone network

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Here is the conclusion:

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.

Read the full article here.

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An affiliate of 38 North