Above all else, North Korea is defined by its secrecy – this isolated nation tightly controls the flow of information into and out of its borders, and this is never more apparent than with its telecoms sector.
In 2008, Egypt’s Orascom Group partnered with the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC) to launch mobile provider Koryolink, but beyond this, so little information is disclosed regarding communications in North Korea that much of what we know is guesswork pieced together by organisations dedicated to this mission.
One such group is 38 North of the Stimson Center, a US-based research group focused on North Korean communications. By using satellite imagery and surveying North Korean defectors, the group reports its estimates on the state of play in the country’s telecoms sector. Developing Telecoms spoke to Stimson Center Fellow Martyn Williams, a journalist and researcher who works with 38 North, to learn more about the secretive nation’s tight telecom controls, the proliferation of mobile devices in the market, and how this is enabling a market economy technically prohibited under the country’s strict communist regime.
Data on North Korea’s telecoms sector is extremely difficult to obtain – 38 North has used satellite imagery and a survey of around 40 defectors. How are you using this information to estimate mobile use in the market?
At 38 North, we have what we call the Digital Atlas; for the most part, we are using North Korean media for the satellite imagery that helps compile this. For example, if the state television runs a new story that the kids at the Pyongyang Number 5 Middle School have returned to school, the TV may show a picture of the school and locate it by mentioning where it’s located in Pyongyang. We can then use satellite imagery to find it.
Our digital atlas is now over 60,000 different points in North Korea, and some of these points that we’ve been locating include cell towers. These are quite easy to distinguish because you usually have a tower, a building and a large solar panel next to it. At the moment we’ve got over 1,000 cell towers mapped out in North Korea, and these have been located primarily through satellite imagery but also sometimes through state media revealing a cell tower; if it’s just a base station on top of a building, they’re really difficult to see on satellite because they’re so small, but sometimes we spot them on state TV on certain buildings so we can add a dot to the map.
The whole map is estimated; it’s not from Orascom or anything. We’ve estimated a coverage range of about 5km from each cell tower - although obviously these have varying levels of power, they’re pointing in different directions, hills are in the way, so anything other than a blanket guess is pretty difficult – but this seems to have worked out, as if you look towards the countryside where there are cell towers along a road going through a rural area, the coverage circles that we have from each base station just about overlap with each other. In a city, the coverage area is probably lower but there are more towers so it doesn’t really matter as there are multiple ones overlapping.
There are gaps in our map and there are probably additional base stations in those areas – we just haven’t found them. We have up to date satellite imagery for urban areas, but we don’t have as much from the countryside so we rely on Google Earth for that, and this can be two to three years out of date depending on the part of the country - some of these cell towers have gone up during that time. Sometimes it might be that we don’t have imagery, or that the weather conditions weren’t right when we took the image – you’d normally see the cell tower’s shadow on the ground rather than the tower itself. There are plenty of caveats to the map, but since nothing was available previously, it’s a good place to start, and hopefully we can update it as time goes on.
Has Orascom’s situation changed significantly?
Orascom own 75% of Cheo Technologies, which is branded as Koryolink. The other 25% is owned by the Ministry of Posts & Telecoms; however, a few years ago Orascom appeared to fall out with the North Korean government in a dispute focused on taking profits out of the country. While Orascom still owns the stake, several years ago they claimed that the government had blocked operational control of the company, and they’re no longer publicly traded. I understand there are Orascom employees still in the country – it may have kept them there as it wants the network to continue even if it doesn’t have control.
Around the time of the dispute, it was reported that the government had set up its own cellular network – it’s unclear whether this is a separate network or an MVNO, or indeed whether the government took some of Orascom’s towers, but I suspect it’s one of the latter two options. From what we’ve heard, Orascom’s network worked really well in cities, particularly Pyongyang, and the other network - known as “Kangsong” - was better in the rest of the country.
Orascom used to have ostensibly a two-tier network (actually three tiers) – the cell phones that North Koreans use, which can access the domestic intranet and make domestic phone calls, and the SIM cards given to foreign tourists or residents, which used a different portion of the network, able to make international calls and access the internet – but unable to make internal calls within North Korea, or access the domestic intranet.
Reportedly, the network identity code differed depending on which network you were using – and nowadays, Kangsong reportedly uses a similar code, leading me to believe it’s built on top of the Koryolink network.
Do we know who supplied the equipment for these networks?
When the Koryolink network was built out, it was all Huawei equipment – since then, it’s not clear but I’d suspect Chinese suppliers. Business is still happening between the countries, and Orascom does have a UN exemption for running Koryolink, which should enable equipment to enter the market legitimately.
Given the fact that private markets are effectively outlawed under North Korea’s regime, how does the device market work? Has mobile use had the same kind of impact in North Korea as it has in other markets?
North Korea was a market where cell phones quickly became the dominant way of connecting houses because landline penetration is so low. Basic telephony and messaging still seem to be the main ways that North Koreans use their phones, because the state intranet is mostly just propaganda. North Korea’s economy took a big hit in the 80s and 90s, and the government has never really bounced back – it used to distribute rations but that system has broken down. North Koreans have started developing small markets that used to be illegitimate but have become accepted unofficially – people trade food, clothing, and items such as electronic goods brought in from China. This is making some North Koreans a lot richer, as they’re able to sell things at a profit – meanwhile, the security services don’t have as much money as they used to have, and so this means bribery has become an option for the newly wealthier traders. So while officially markets are not tolerated in North Korean, if it weren’t for this sector then millions of people would die.
A lot of the defectors who crossed the border were traders, and it was interesting to discover how national their trading networks were – they’d be making clothes but instead of just selling them locally, they’d be selling to cities on the other side of the country. This was all happening with mobile phones – communicating with buyers, drivers, everything was done across the mobile network. This would have been a lot more difficult on a landline network; mobile phones are underpinning this market economy, as without them a lot of the trade wouldn’t be happening at such scale. Additionally, they’ve helped even out pricing across the country as with mobiles people can easily find out what items cost from city to city. North Koreans still face travel restrictions – they can’t just take transport around the country, so they can’t take advantage of a lower price elsewhere by going to that destination, but the prices are broadly more stable. There are also a couple of dedicated websites that track prices of certain staple products, and there typically aren’t massive discrepancies across the major cities.
How much oversight does the government have on mobile use? Presumably North Korea doesn’t have the monitoring resources of somewhere like China, but would still want to keep a close eye on the content of mobile communication?
North Koreans are aware that any phone calls they make could be tapped, and that their text messages are likely being read, so they are typically cautious with how the communicate via these channels. I don’t think they would shy away from talking about trade, but any sort of political speech is something you’d never say over a mobile phone. The government does have surveillance, and users are aware of it; when Koryolink launched its network, it actually made it clear that there was a gateway into the network for this purpose.
However, the main part of control over cell phones is not what people are saying within the country, but what’s coming into the country. There are a couple of systems on North Korean phones; the main one that’s used to control what people do is a digital signature system, which means that every file that runs on a cell phone needs to be digitally signed by the government – apps, video, audio, anything. If it lacks this signature, it won’t run. This has been the case for at least six or seven years, and it’s one of the main reasons why phones are still mostly used for communications – because they can be used for little else. Phones are an easy way to look at foreign content, and the government is keen to block this.
There’s another function that doesn’t seem to be used much, but it’s an app called Trace Viewer which is preinstalled on all devices and takes random screenshots as you’re using your phone. It’s a guard against doing anything dodgy on your phone – once taken, the screenshots can’t be deleted. In early versions of the software there was a gallery that you could review, but later versions removed this. However, we’ve never actually encountered anyone who has run afoul of this; North Koreans are liable to get stopped on the street at any time and have their phone inspected, and we’ve never heard of anyone having their images reviewed or downloaded. We presume there is software capable of downloading these images, but while View Tracer is installed on all phones we still know very little about how it’s used.
We’ve inspected a device with Trace Viewer installed and we know that it’s not sending anything to a centralised location. One thing that’s stopping a lot of surveillance in North Korea is the fact that this is a 3G network – and early 3G at that. If devices were sending pictures all the time, the network would collapse. The Chinese have warehouses full of people reading text messages – North Korea doesn’t even have a stable electricity supply, so being able to run a data centre that will process all this is pretty much impossible.
Is there space for connectivity to evolve in North Korea, or is the status quo likely to remain indefinitely?
North Korea’s first network was short lived; it was a GSM network, a generation behind the rest of the world – they were getting 2G as everyone else was getting 3G, and likewise with 3G and 4G. It may be because of sanctions but there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to introduce 4G or 5G to North Korea. The network plays an important role in the country because the communication system is so bad; while there might be surveillance, the ability to simply call relatives is something North Koreans never had, and that’s probably something the UN Security Council recognised when it exempted Huawei from sanctions to allow it to continue operating there.
It’s going to be interesting to see which way North Korea goes in the future. We recently interviewed some North Korean hackers based in China who had been hacking North Korean phones, and that was the first time we’d seen North Koreans directly attacking some of the information controls on that network. As tech proliferates in the market, the government will have a harder job keeping this under control, but this has always been the case; people find their way around the existing controls, and then new ones are brought in to replace them. These hackers had been using the phone’s USB port; we’ve since seen phones with the USB disabled, seemingly by the government. There have been recent reports of a mandated rollout of a new operating system – North Korean phones don’t get over-the-air updates – and I suspect this is because the government will have found a way to re-enable the USB but prevent this type of hacking. The last time the government mandated a new operating system was in 2014, which was when the digital signature system was implemented. It will be a cat-and-mouse game between North Koreans and the government, and the government is very good at it as they have such tight control of the network. This is different to somewhere like China – there may be a lot of surveillance, but people can always use a VPN or install encryption on their computer to get around government firewalls.
I’ve spoken to many internet freedom specialists and a lot of their suggestions for North Korea simply won’t work there, as almost everything relies on having a base level internet connection, then using different applications and software to get around the censors. There are no solutions if you don’t have an internet connection, and North Korea is one of very few places in the world where there is effectively no internet.
Martyn Williams is a Fellow at the Stimson Center and contributor to 38 North.