Archive for the ‘Telephones’ Category

How digital technology gets the news out of North Korea

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Martyn Williams writes in IT World:

The girl in the video looks like she’s about 12 years old. Thin, dirty and with a vacant look on her face, she tells the cameraman that she’s actually 23 and she survives by foraging for grass to sell to wealthier families for their rabbits.

The sobering footage was shot in June this year in the province of South Pyongan, North Korea, and provides a glimpse into the life of one person who lives far from the military parades and fireworks last month marking the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

It was shot on a cheap camera by a man who goes by the pseudonym Kim Dong-cheol, a North Korean with a double life. In addition to his job as a driver for a company, Kim also works as a clandestine reporter for AsiaPress, a Japanese news agency that’s taken advantage of the digital electronics revolution to get reports from inside North Korea.

AsiaPress works with six North Koreans they’ve trained as journalists. They’re given instruction in operating cameras, using PCs and how to use cell phones so they don’t attract the attention of authorities. Then, every few months, they meet with AsiaPress representatives just over the border in China to hand over their images.

“When we started training journalists in 2003 or 2004, getting cameras into North Korea was a real problem,” said Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of the news agency, at a Tokyo news conference on Monday. “Nowadays, within North Korea you are able to have your pick of Sony, Panasonic or Samsung cameras.”

The material they produce is often startling and documents a side of the country the government doesn’t want the world to see.

In another clip also captured by Kim, a North Korean woman argues with a police man. Asked for a bribe, she screams at him and pushes him. “This cop is an idiot,” she shouts.

For most journalists, getting into North Korea is a tough task. Getting outside of the capital Pyongyang to see the lives of average people in the countryside is very difficult. Seeing the sort of poverty or disagreement with authority that Kim caught on camera is impossible.

Most of the shots are recorded surreptitiously and the small digital cameras make smuggling images easier than from older tape-based models.

“You used to have to tape video cassettes to your stomach,” he said. “But it’s very easy to hide an SD Card somewhere on your body.”

AsiaPress isn’t the only media working with reporters or informants in North Korea. Outlets including Open Radio for North Korea and Daily NK also receive reports from correspondents inside the country that add additional information, understanding and sometimes rumor to what’s happening inside the country.

The reports are typically sent via cell phones connected to a Chinese mobile network. Signals from Chinese cellular towers reach a few kilometers into North Korea and are difficult to monitor by the state’s telecom surveillance operation.

Recently, North Korean authorities have woken up to the flow of information across the border and are trying to stop it.

“The greatest headache I face is telecommunications,” Ishimaru said.

Mobile detection units patrol the border looking for signals from within North Korea and, if found, attempt to triangulate their source.

“The number of these units has been increasing, so if you spend a long time on the phone the police will come and search your house,” said Ishimaru. “People have become frightened of using the phone.”

If caught the punishment can be severe. Earlier this year a man faced a public firing squad after he was caught with a cell phone and admitted to supplying information to someone in South Korea, according to a report by Open Radio for North Korea.

The risk such reporters face leaves their agencies open to criticism that they are putting people in unnecessary danger, but Ishimaru said his reporters all want to provide a true picture of life inside North Korea to the rest of the world. He pays them between $200 and $300 per month.

The digital media revolution isn’t one way. It’s estimated that half of all young people in major cities have watched pirated South Korean TV dramas.

“Media around the world has gone digital and that’s also happened with North Korean propaganda,” said Ishimaru. “But even the wealthy and those in authority don’t want to watch propaganda films and movies about Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. They want to watch something that’s more entertaining.”

The shows are recorded from South Korean satellite TV broadcasts in China and burned onto DVDs or Video CDs that soon make it over the border and into North Korean markets.

There are occasional crackdowns, but even the police want to watch the dramas.

“Although there are crackdowns and things are confiscated,” he said, “I don’t think there is anyway the leaders can put a stop to this.”

Read previous posts about Rimjinggang here

Read the full story here:
How digital technology gets the news out of North Korea
IT World
Martyn Williams


ROK Red Cross seeks hotline with DPRK

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Accordign to Yonhap:

South Korea’s Red Cross is pushing to set up its own communications channel with its North Korean counterpart so that it can carry out humanitarian missions independent of cross-border political tensions, the organization’s chief said Thursday.

“We’re talking with the government on the need to work with the North Korean Red Cross through an independent means of communication,” Yoo Chong-ha, president of the Korean National Red Cross, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

“Government-level dialogue is between governments. The role of the Red Cross has to be separate,” Yoo said.

The Red Cross, although tasked with non-political projects such as relief aid and family reunions, has at times served as an alternative track for contact and talks between the two Koreas, who are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

“The Red Cross is not a subsidiary agency to the Unification Ministry. It is not appropriate for all concerned that the Red Cross should work on behalf of the government,” Yoo said in the interview. The chief will be heading to the North to oversee a round of family reunions that begin on Friday.

Currently, there is no channel linking the Red Cross chapters of the two Koreas. Their sole hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom was severed as part of Seoul’s package of punitive measures announced in May after holding the North responsible for the deadly sinking of a warship that killed 46 sailors.

Yoo said he would tell his North Korean counterpart, Jang Jae-on, of the importance of resuming humanitarian exchanges, regardless of political tensions, when he visits North Korea.

In Red Cross talks this week that reopened for the first time in a year, the North asked Seoul to provide tens of thousands of tons in rice and fertilizer aid in exchange for expanding family reunions.

“This is not an issue for the Red Cross” to deal with, said Yoo, with skepticism on whether such aid draws results.

Read the full story here:
S. Korean Red Cross seeks independent communications channel with Northern counterpart


RoK hung with its own cable

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Vladimir Lenin is often quoted as saying “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”.  This popped into my head this morning when I read this story in the Choson Ilbo:

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek on Tuesday admitted that the fiber optic cables South Korea provided have made it more difficult to spy on North Korea. Hyun was answering a question from a lawmaker at a session of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee. “I understand that there is a problem or a loophole” in South Korea’s intelligence-gathering ability, he said.

Grand National Party lawmaker Chung Jin-suk expressed worries that South Korea’s ability to gather intelligence was weakened by fiber optic cables which the South Korean government supplied to the North in the past. “I suspect that some of the 45 km-long fiber optic cables may have been diverted to lay a communications network between frontline Army units in the North,” he said.

Hyun said Seoul has “no plan as of now to comply with an additional request from the North for more fiber optic cables.”

The South Korean government sent 20 km, 15 km and 2 km-long copper cables to the North in 2002, 2005 and 2007, which were meant to be used for inter-Korean military communications. Last year, the South supplied the North with 45 km-long fiber optic cables, two sets of optical termination equipment, and two sets of optical measuring instruments.

Under an agreement, a 25 km portion was supposed to be laid on the east coast, and another 20 km portion on the west coast. It is difficult to wiretap a network of fiber optic cables, Chung said.

“We haven’t checked yet whether the cables were used simply for the inter-Korean military communications network or for the expansion of a new communications network for frontline units,” Chung said.

He said if copper cables were replaced with fiber optic cables, then that would make intelligence gathering much more difficult in cases like the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, where there is a suspicion of North Korean involvement.

Read the full story here:
Seoul ‘Hampered Its Own Ability to Spy on N.Korea’
Choson Ilbo


Illicit mobile phone stats

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

According to Business Week:

As many as 1,000 North Koreans use handsets that connect to Chinese networks to tell people in the South about subjects ranging from food shortages to leader Kim Jong Il’s health, said Ha Tae Keung, a South Korean who runs a Seoul-based radio station that broadcasts daily to the North.

Ha’s Open Radio for North Korea is one of several groups gathering information from people on phones that only work near the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) border with China. The risks are absolute: One caller was executed, Ha’s employees heard, leading Open Radio to curb contact with informants.

“To us, it’s about breaking news,” said Ha, who receives U.S. congressional funding through the National Endowment for Democracy. “To them, it’s a matter of life and death.”

North Korea accuses the U.S. and South Korea of financing such organizations to conduct “a black propaganda campaign,” the Korean Central News Agency said last month. Kim’s government glorifies his achievements as “the great sun of the nation,” who repels “U.S. warmongers and South Korean puppet forces.”

Defection and disclosing “national secrets” are deemed treason under North Korea’s criminal code and are punishable by death, according to a copy posted on the Web site of South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Listening to “anti-state radio” is punishable by up to five years in a labor camp.

Radios are pre-tuned to government programs and owning computers without permission is forbidden, according to the Feb. 17 UN report. Security squads raid homes looking for contraband, it said.

While mobile phones are allowed in and around the capital of Pyongyang, their use is forbidden near the border, the UN said. Legal cell phones in North Korea, many operated by Cairo- based Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, can’t be used for international calls, a U.S. State Department human-rights report released in March said.

SIM Cards
More than 10 North Korean informants for Open Radio use phones with pre-paid SIM cards bought in China that work as far as 10 kilometers across the border, Ha said. Pre-paid cards accounted for 82 percent of all users at Beijing-based China Mobile Ltd., that country’s biggest operator, in 2007.

Illegal phones started appearing as early as 2000, when defectors living in China and South Korea had them smuggled across the border to relatives, said Sohn Kwang Joo, chief editor at Seoul-based Daily NK.

Read the full story here:
North Korea Open Radio Prompts Wonder About Riches Over Border
Business Week
Bomi Lim


Koryolink reaches 100,000 subscribers

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

According to the Financial Times:

Orascom Telecom, the Egypt-based mobile network operator, says its subsidiary in North Korea, Koryolink, has acquired 100,000 subscribers in its first year and expects to add millions more in the next five years.

The expansion plans come as the isolated country of 24m, which says it wants to be considered a “mighty and prosperous nation” by 2012, steps up efforts to attract foreign investment.

Pyongyang’s economic ambitions come in the face of tough international sanctions on its nuclear arms programme.

“We see that there is a very big plan for an economic boom,” said Khaled Bichara, chief executive of Orascom. “They are really looking to have, by 2012, a much stronger economy. We believe that mobiles and eventually international communication will definitely be part of this.”

Koryolink, a pre-pay system, has been available in Pyongyang and Nampo, the capital’s port, since December 2008. To help expand the network from there, Mr Bichara said North Korea was laying fibre-optic cables in the provinces.

Orascom was installing its most technologically advanced 3G network in North Korea, he said. The 2010 target for user numbers was ambitious but Mr Bichara declined to put a figure on it.

“I think if we achieve the target of this year, that will be a big milestone,” he said. “The number will be big enough to make Koryolink look like a significant company for us because the revenues per customer are interesting and we believe that this business will have customers in the millions within the next four or five years.”

Mr Bichara said the subscription figures showed that mobile phones were not limited to elite members of the military and communist party, as many observers had speculated.

However, the handset price of €140 ($195) put a mobile phone out of most people’s grasp.

So far, Koryolink offers only a basic voice and text messaging service. International calls and roaming services are not provided but Mr Bichara said starting them would be simple given the sophistication of the network being installed.

Koryolink is a joint venture in which Orascom has a 75 per cent stake. The rest is owned by Korea Post & Telecommunications Corp, the state fixed-line provider.

Thanks to a reader for sending this to me. 

Read the full article here:
N Korea operator looks to millions of 3G users
Financial Times
Christian Oliver and Heba Saleh


Kaesong border communication upgraded

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

According to the Associated Press:

Military officials from the two Koreas communicated through new fiber-optic cables to help facilitate the travel of 330 South Koreans heading to an industrial complex in the North on Wednesday, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

South Korea has sent fiber-optic cables and other equipment to the North to help its communist neighbour modernize its military hot lines with the South, she said.

The new hot lines replaced outdated copper cable hot lines that will remain as spare lines, said Lee, the spokeswoman.

The new hot lines will serve as a key mode of communication for border crossings for people travelling to and from the joint industrial complex at the North Korean border town of Kaesong, she added.

I assume the upgrade to fiber optic means that the bureaucracy of border crossing has been computerized.  Rather than reading information across the phone line border officials can now send it electronically (including photos) to speed up processing on the North Korean side of the border.

Read the full story here:
Divided Koreas open new, updated military hot lines to facilitate border crossings
Associated Press (via Winnipeg Free Press)


Koryolink continues to expand customer base

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

At the end of Q2-2009 Koryolink had signed up nearly 48,000 subscribers.  At the end of Q3-2009, this number has grown to more than 69,000.  According to Telegeography:

North Korea’s only mobile operator, CHEO Technology, which offers services under the Koryolink brand, has signed up 69,261 customers as at 30 September 2009. The company was awarded a 25-year licence to operate 3G services in January 2008, with the first four years on an exclusive basis. It is owned by Orascom Telecom Holding of Egypt (75%) and state-owned Korea Post and Telecoms Corporation (25%). Koryolink launched services in December 2008 in the capital Pyongyang, but the network has since been expanded to include the main road running up to the northern city of Hyangsan, with the company currently working on expanding services nationwide. In the first nine months of 2009, the cellco reported revenue of USD18.5 million, while earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) reached USD9.99 million with a margin of 54%. Average revenue per user (ARPU) for the third quarter of 2009 totalled USD21.6, down from USD22.8 in the previous quarter. With a focus on network rollout and network quality improvement, Koryolink invested USD25 million in the first nine months of 2009.

Thoughts and additional information:

1. For the record, Koryolink is not the only mobile phone operator in the DPRK.  It is the only 3G operator. A little research on this site will turn up plenty of information on the DPRK’s first cell phone provider.

2. See past Koryolink and Orascom posts here.

3. It is interesting that the DPRK and Orascom have expanded 3G service from Pyongyang to Myohyangsan.  Though a popular spot for North Korean elites and tourists, it is not a commercial hub by any means…


Int’l Press Gets Glimpse of N.Korea’s Daily Grind

Monday, October 12th, 2009

The Choson Ilbo recently posted an article which contained several interesting facts.  Quoting from the article:

A W35 million price tag for the Internet connection to transmit a five-minute piece of footage is only one of the endless list of inconveniences that make up daily life in North Korea (US$1=W1,163). Kristine Kwok, a reporter for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post who accompanied Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on his visit to North Korea on Oct. 4 to 6, recounts them in a story titled “Life in the Hermit Kingdom.”

“Accessing the Internet is a distant dream for North Korean citizens and an expensive luxury for visiting foreigners,” Kwok wrote. “Filing a news report of Wen shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would cost a TV station the equivalent of HK$233,472. The North Korean Foreign Ministry eventually decided to pay all the Internet fees for the reporters –much to their relief.”

The report said North Korea’s 24 million people are barred from the Internet, with connections available only in some hotels, where sending a picture costs around W68,000 and a single email W3,400. North Korea has set up road blocks along the information super highway and is committing “robbery,” Kwok added.

The last time I visited the DPRK, I recall that emails and phone calls from the Yangakdo Hotel are exorbitant–also, there are no phone books available and switch board operators (yes, they still have them) are of no help. If you don’t know the number you need to call you have to get creative.  But, with prices like that you would think the DPRK would like more journalists to visit!

Also mentioned in the article is Pyongyang’s new fast-food Samtaesong Restaurant, which I blogged about here when it opened.  According to the article “Samtaesong” translates to “three big stars”.  I am going to go out on a limb and guess that those three stars are the “Three Stars of Paektu: Kim il Sung, Kim Jong Suk, and Kim Jong il.”  now you can show your loyalty to the three stars while eating a burger, which is much more pleasant than standing silently in line formation under the hot sun for hours on end while political leaders you have never met read long speeches to you.

Also, “The most expensive item on the menu is ‘crispy chicken,’ which costs 3 euros, while a hamburger costs between 1.2 to 1.7 euros. That is high given the fact that North Korea’s per-capita GDP was US$1,000 last year, but AFP said Samtaeseong sells 300 burgers each day.”

Read the full article here:
Int’l Press Gets Glimpse of N.Korea’s Daily Grind
Choson Ilbo


North Korea Google Earth

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

North Korea Uncovered v.16
Download it here


The most recent version of North Korea Uncovered (North Korea Google Earth) has been published.  Since being launched, this project has been continuously expanded and to date has been downloaded over 32,000 times.

Pictured to the left is a statue of Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This statue, as well as many others identified in this version of the project, was built by the North Koreans. According to a visitor:

From the neck down, the Kabila monument looks strangely like Kim Jong Il: baggy uniform, creased pants, the raised arm, a little book in his left hand. From the neck up, the statue is the thick, grim bald mug of Laurent Kabila (his son Joseph is the current president). “The body was made in North Korea,” explains my driver Felix. In other words, the body is Kim Jong Il’s, but with a fat, scowling Kabila head simply welded on.

This is particularly interesting because there are no known pictures of a Kim Jong il statue.  The only KJI statue that is reported to exist is in front of the National Security Agency in Pyongyang.  If a Kim Jong il statue does in fact exist, it might look something like this.

Thanks again to the anonymous contributors, readers, and fans of this project for your helpful advice and location information. This project would not be successful without your contributions.

Version 16 contains the following additions: Rakwon Machine Complex, Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory, Manpo Restaurant, Worker’s Party No. 3 Building (including Central Committee and Guidance Dept.), Pukchang Aluminum Factory, Pusan-ri Aluminum Factory, Pukchung Machine Complex, Mirim Block Factory, Pyongyang General Textile Factory, Chonnae Cement Factory, Pyongsu Rx Joint Venture, Tongbong Cooperative Farm, Chusang Cooperative Farm, Hoeryong Essential Foodstuff Factory, Kim Ki-song Hoeryong First Middle School , Mirim War University, electricity grid expansion, Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground (TSLG)” is also known as the “Musudan-ri Launching Station,” rebuilt electricity grid, Kumchang-ri suspected underground nuclear site, Wangjaesan Grand Monument, Phothae Revolutionary Site, Naedong Revolutionary Site, Kunja Revolutionary Site, Junggang Revolutionary Site, Phophyong Revolutionary Site, Samdung Revolutionary Site, Phyongsan Granite Mine, Songjin Iron and Steel Complex (Kimchaek), Swedish, German and British embassy building, Taehongdan Potato Processing Factory, Pyongyang Muyseum of Film and Theatrical Arts, Overseas Monuments built by DPRK: Rice Museum (Muzium Padi) in Malaysia, Statue de Patrice Lumumba (Kinshasa, DR Congo), National Heroes Acre (Windhoek, Namibia), Derg Monument (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), National Heroes Acre (Harare, Zimbabwe), New State House (Windhoek, Namibia), Three Dikgosi (Chiefs) Monument (Gaborone, Botswana), 1st of May Square Statue of Agostinho Neto (Luanda, Angola), Momunment Heroinas Angolas (Luanda, Angola), Monument to the Martyrs of Kifangondo Battle (Luanda, Angola), Place de l’étoile rouge, (Porto Novo, Benin), Statue of King Béhanzin (Abomey, Benin), Monument to the African Renaissance (Dakar, Senegal), Monument to Laurent Kabila [pictured above] (Kinshasa, DR Congo).

Orascom attracting competition

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

According to Telegeography:

Vietnamese military-owned telco Viettel has announced plans to expand its network to North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, according to reports in local paper Thanh Nien Daily. Tran Phuoc Minh, deputy director of Viettel, said the company is hoping to hold negotiations with the three countries in order to gain a foothold in their still relatively underdeveloped wireless markets. The cellco expanded its network to Cambodia last year, where it signed up 100,000 wireless subscribers after two months of pilot operations, as well as Laos, where it hopes to attract 50,000 subscribers this year. According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms database, Viettel had a subscriber base of 28 million at end-2008.

Read the full story here:
Viettel plans network expansion to North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela