By Chad O’Carroll
On Friday the Associated Press Pyongyang bureau reported that North Korean authorities will allow foreign visitors to access the internet using cellular devices from March 01. Predictably, the news was published with the caveat that access conditions will not change for local citizens, who will remain cut off from internet access and remain unable to make calls to foreign countries for the foreseeable future. As such, the news triggered skepticism in some quarters that the step was undertaken simply to encourage tourism and increase revenue for the North Korean government. But even if that is the case, there are nevertheless several reasons why we should be encouraging the relaxation in North Korean telecommunications.
Just four weeks ago, rules that prevented tourists bringing their cell phones in to North Korea were finally relaxed, a development that meant foreigners would no longer have to surrender their devices upon arrival in Pyongyang. Coming just weeks after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recent trip to North Korea, many may now be wondering if his visit was behind the cellphone and internet access developments. But while some might see the recent news as evidence that Pyongyang took heed of Schmidt’s pronouncements, comments made by Orascom staff to Xinhua News suggest these changes had been long planned and were not consequently related to the Google trip.
Over the past four years Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Company has been working closely with North Korea to develop and expand the KoryoLink cell phone network. Run as a joint venture based on 75% Orascom and 25% North Korean ownership, the Cairo based tech firm put a strong focus on ensuring the DPRK cell network would use the latest 3G cell tower technology from the outset. As a result of this step, the North Korean network was always going to be ready for internet access, provided of course there was sufficient political will in Pyongyang. Now, with 92.9% of population areas covered by KoryoLink’s network, as a result of today’s news it seems that foreigners should be able to access the net wherever they go.
While only 30,000 tourists visit North Korea per year, their potential to access the internet could prove to be the first step towards a gradual opening up of the DPRK telecommunications infrastructure. North Koreans already comprise some two million KoryoLink subscribers, though currently they can only use their devices to communicate internally. However, some of these subscribers can already access limited domestic data services, to find weather reports or local news, for example. Looking to the medium to long-term future, it’s therefore quite possible that this latest move could pave the way for North Korea to roll out a limited internet service (perhaps similar to Iran) to its own citizens as a logical next step. The same thing has already happened in Cuba, where tourist based access paved the way for increasing domestic access and even the emergence of blogs written by Cubans, but published via USB keys passed to foreigners who have net access in international class hotels.
Another benefit of foreigners being able to access the internet while in North Korea is that it could seriously catalyze the speed at which important world news gets to the country. While those coming into regular contact with foreigners tend to come from the top tiers of North Korean society, that foreigners will now theoretically be able to spread news as it happens means the development will lead to a new and credible addition to the country’s infamous “bush telegraph”. And though little is known about how the North Korean government intends to prevent local citizens from ever using approved devices to access the internet, we can bet that some will find a way. To be sure this will be a tiny fraction of people, but given North Korea’s history of an impermeable iron curtain, it is meaningful in any case.
It will be particularly interesting if foreigners will be able to access South Korean news and information websites through the KoryoLink infrastructure. Even if these and other websites do turn out to be blocked, it won’t take long for crafty visitors to get around the rules using VPN and other IP proxy technologies. As such, the only way Orascom will really ever be able to assure its North Korean hosts of absolute control will be to shut off access for everyone, completely. Such a move can’t be discounted, with cell usage having been dramatically curtailed in a u-turn policy change on made by Pyongyang in 2004, the year an explosion took place allegedly near to Kim Jong Il’s passing train.
Another benefit of the move will be that it will be easier for visitors to share with the world the reality of life in North Korea. With photography having long been restricted and visitors subject to random photo deletions by over-zealous border guards, the latest development should theoretically allow foreigners to upload pictures straight to the internet, as quickly as they take them. Naturally, it is likely that access will be monitored to some degree, but the more widespread access becomes, the harder it will be for DPRK authorities to track use.
One potential hurdle to the above advantages relates to costs. To date foreign residents and business people have been able to access the internet access using satellite technology, but the costs have been so exorbitant that it has significantly reduced the potential for the internet to have many of the positive effects described above. Unfortunately, figures obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggest that for its part, the new mobile internet service will not be cheap, with a set up fee of around 150 EUROS for the SIM card, then data fees of around 150 euros for 2GB of bandwidth. Prices this high mean it will be expensive for people to get the type of access required to create the various impacts detailed above, but it’s a start nonetheless. And while the high fees reflect that access is currently aimed more at long term residents than tourists, a KoryoLink technician said that his team was working to persuade the North Korean government to get permission to introduce cheaper and short-term tourist focused services. Time will tell how significant Friday’s development is, but it seems clear that any opening, no matter how small, should be welcomed and encouraged vigorously.
Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from djking’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.