North Korea's tentative telecoms

By Aidan Foster-Carter

A decade ago, I let slip a unique opportunity. After a trip to Pyongyang's excellent circus, I was briefly ushered into a side room to wait. Just me, some overstuffed armchairs - and a telephone directory. So what's the big deal, you ask? Only that North Korea's phone book, like most things there, is top secret. An administration that some claim is loosening up still doesn't even publish phone and fax numbers for ministries, or their addresses. So imagine my excitement. For a moment I contemplated stuffing this slim volume under my jacket - but I didn't. Thou shalt not steal. Besides, thou wouldst get nicked - and then what?

Top-secret telephone books are representative of North Korea's telecom scene. It is a weird mix of old and new. There's international direct dialing (IDD) service to Pyongyang (850-2) and Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone (850-8), but nowhere else; and getting through is by no means guaranteed. Foreign embassies used to be allowed satellite phones, but these are now banned. Visitors are relieved of their mobile phones at the airport. A year after it opened, the British Embassy is still the only UK mission in the world unable to hook up to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's global communications system. Apparently Pyongyang paranoids fear the US could use the signal to target bombs. Seriously.

What about e-mail? Kim Jong-il famously asked former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright for hers, so he of course is online. For his subjects, it's a different story. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the only country on the planet not yet using its allotted domain suffix (.pk). The few semi-official DPRK websites are based elsewhere: dprk.com in China, while pro-North Koreans in Japan host Pyongyang's news agency at kcna.co.jp. Another China-based outfit, silibank.com, offers e-mail service, but it's too slow, limited and costly to be worthwhile.

Clearly the hermit Kimdom is afraid of, as the Chinese say, the flies that blow in if you open up. Yet at the same time the dear leader is famously keen on all things high-tech. Information technology (IT) appeals to him on many levels: cool, cutting-edge, cheap and of military use (be it spying or cyberwar). Computers have been a North Korean priority for more than a decade, reportedly run by Kim's son Kim Jong-nam (he of illicit Tokyo trips fame, which may have been IT-related). DPRK techies are good enough for Samsung to employ at its Beijing research center, while North Korean business and language software is for sale at Singapore-based pic-international.com ("under heavy construction" when last checked). As to infrastructure, fiber-optic cables now connect major cities, and there is a nationwide official intranet called Kwangmyung.

In the era of sunshine, South Korea - the most wired nation in the world - is helping out. Several Southern dotcoms have joint ventures in the North, working on software, cartoons (more in a future Pyongyang Watch), and some manufacturing (eg circuit boards). They're training, too. Two Hanyang university professors are set to teach IT for two months this summer at Kim Chaek University of Technology, the North's top engineering school, in the first ever substantive academic exchange. And on June 11 ground was broken for an inter-Korean technology college in Pyongyang, funded by Southern Christians.

Now big business is getting in on the act. Last month a joint team from the South's top IT firms - Samsung, LG, KT, SK, and Hyundai - headed north, and returned with an outline deal to start mobile service in Pyongyang and Nampo (its port) this year. Such a scheme was promised by Deputy Post and Telecoms Minister Yu Yong-sop in the party daily Rodong Sinmun on May 23, in an article that had more on digitalization, switching capacity, and dual-circuit networks than juche. His ministry hosted the Republic of Korea visitors, themselves led by an assistant minister from the ROK Information-Communications Ministry.

That's all very encouraging - yet also odd. Politically, this government input means these were de facto inter-Korean talks (which are supposedly in limbo), yet on a topic not on the formal North-South agenda. Economically, like most things in North Korea, this will not make money soon, if ever; so the chaebol, usually fierce rivals, are teaming up here. Costs are put at 30 billion to 40 billion ROK won (US$24 million to $32 million) for some 40,000 users, all top cadres or foreigners. This in a total population of about 23 million, who thus far have barely a million land lines between them. (South Korea's 48 million boast more than 20 million land lines and 30 million handphones.)

But it may never happen, or at least not yet. After last Saturday's inter-Korean naval clash, this project is now on ice. Or if it does go ahead, another issue is: who ya gonna call? International service is planned - yet at present both Koreas ban and bar calls to each other, except for 56 official lines used by government and the Korean Energy Development Organization (to contact its light-water reactor site in the North). That silly restriction will surely have to go.

Meanwhile a few bold spirits are testing sunshine's limits. Kim Beom-hoon, a Southern entrepreneur, is in trouble with Seoul for exceeding his brief. To see why, log on to dprklotto.com: the first website on a server physically in Pyongyang. Kim's Hoonnet paid more than $1 million to install this and hook it up to China and beyond. To recoup the cost, what better way than online gambling? - illegal in South Korea.

More startling yet, Kim has opened North Korea's first Internet cafe. Fees of $100 an hour (to scare off the locals?) were too much: in late June they were slashed to $10. A bargain, says Kim; phoning the US costs $6 a minute, and the link is fast enough to watch the World Cup online. A maverick, yes; but he's helping open the North and reunify Korea. Seoul should give Kim Beom-hoon a medal, not rein him in.

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Jul 6, 2002


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