Slave to the Blog: IT Update Edition

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We are increasingly convinced that future direction of North Korea—even in the short-run—will hinge on the information wars: the ongoing efforts by both North Koreans and outsiders to communicate and the equally intensive efforts on the part of the government to control such communication. It is hard for a regime of this sort to persist in its present form when the knowledge of the citizenry—including the elite--is continually outpacing the propaganda apparatus. The most telling evidence for this claim is the regime’s own manifest concern about the issue. We recently reviewed the ongoing cat-and-mouse game along the border, including increased efforts to jam cell-phone signal and identify those communicating with the outside.

Thanks to NK News, North Korea Tech, and other wire sources we have evidence that the effort to control information is widening to encompass leakage through the foreign community. Reuters broke the story that the regime has moved to deactivate the SIM cards of foreign visitors so that phones cannot be left with domestic residents, allowing them to surf the web. The regime ultimately bowed to its interest in developing tourism earlier this year by permitting a bifurcated regime to operate in this regard: North Koreans use the Koryolink network to make calls and access a state-run domestic internet but foreigners have access to a cell network that connects to the real web. As with any such regime, clever North Koreans will figure out how to chip away at it; thus the need for more controls.

Perhaps the most surprising new set of controls was broken by NKNews: the decision to license—not “ban” as the story suggests—the use of satellite technology on the part of foreign embassies, officials and international NGOs to establish WiFi connections. With encryption technology, these connections can be made at least relatively secure. Yet even this story has a leakage dimension. In a fascinating piece at The Diplomat in August, Tae-jun Kang draws on reports by North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) to the effect that real estate prices around the embassies and foreign NGOs have been driven up by the desire of local residents—again, obviously elites—to tap into these networks. The Diplomat story reports that the government had even asked those with strong router signals to either password-protect them or weaken their signals so that they could not be accessed by passers-by on Koryolink cellphones.

Koryolink subscriptions as of 2014Q2

We have gotten several calls from journalists about the news that Koryolink hit 2.4 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2014 and may now exceed 3 million. But data collated by North Korea Tech suggests that may be the wrong headline. When cellphone technology is rolled out in a developing country, adoption is initially slow but then accelerates, showing a geometric pattern, before once again slowing as the market reaches saturation. But the data presented in the figure above suggests that the pace of adoption may already be slowing marginally.

Several hypotheses present themselves. First, the regime has decided to slow the pace in the belief that they may not want everyone to have a phone; the numbers are in any case exaggerated in our view since some share of these are phones used by regime elites. This hypothesis would suggest that political concerns are trumping the strong fiscal motives of scooping up valuable foreign exchange from phone sales.

The other possibility is simply that the phones are too expensive for most North Koreans and those with the income to both purchase the phone and afford the expensive plans are limited.

In either case, there is much to be said about a little-noted feature of the Royce sanctions bill that authorizes expenditure on telecomm. In particular, the legislation asks the President to submit a "classified report" setting forth a detailed plan for making "unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.” We are for it.

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