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[Op-Ed] N. Korea’s Mobile Phones

Posted December. 11, 2009 08:53,   


Back in Nov. 17, 1986, a South Korean daily said North Korea’s then leader Kim Il Sung died. Had it been true, the newspaper would have gotten a scoop. Other dailies also cited sources half in doubt and announced rumors or confirmation of Kim’s death. The next day, however, the news turned out to be false. After living for eight more years, Kim died on July 8, 1994. A newspaper editor who chose the headline “Death of Kim Il Sung Rumored,” not “Kim’s Death,” won a prize from an organization of journalists in South Korea.

When false news on Kim’s death were released, North Korea-related news was hard to handle since it was extremely difficult to confirm whether certain information was true. South Korean intelligence kept North Korea-related data secret, and even hid developments in the communist country. The excuse was that Pyongyang would rush to act to prevent Seoul from gathering information on the North. Sometimes, however, South Koreans hope that their intelligence will provide an explanation when certain matters draw big attention.

In the 2000s, however, mobile phones have changed media reports on North Korea. In 2002, the North launched mobile phone service, in cooperation with Thailand’s mobile phone provider Loxley. When Yongcheon Station in the North’s North Pyongan Province exploded on April 22, 2004, mobile phones helped South Korean media to release accurate reports on the incident the next day. Shortly after the explosion, the North halted mobile phone service. At the time, rumors had it that the communist regime stopped the service since mobile phones were used to explode the station. A more plausible story is that the U.S. attacked Iraq in 2003 after employing mobile phone-based psychological warfare against the Iraqi government and high-ranking military officers.

North Korea resumed mobile phone services in December last year by establishing Koryolink with the Egyptian communications service provider Orascom. The number of North Korean subscribers to the service will soon exceed 100,000. Yet what is drawing attention is whether Pyongyang can control internal information. Mobile phones have played a critical role in letting the world know about the North’s H1N1 flu outbreak and currency revaluation. North Koreans suffering from a lack of food, however, will find it tough to afford subscription fees and handsets amounting to 1,000 U.S. dollars. One suggestion is for South Korea to send discarded handsets to North Korea and contribute to opening the North’s society.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)