Information Warfare: December 8, 2004

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North Korea is facing growing unrest propelled by uncontrolled movement of news via new cell phone networks. North Korea has always tightly controlled information. Radios must be manufactured so that they only receive government stations. Anyone found with a radio that can receive foreign stations is tossed into a labor camp, or worse. Few North Koreans have telephones, and fewer still have computers or Internet access. But several years ago, Chinese telephone companies began bringing cell phone service to areas along the North Korean border. At first, coverage was spotty. But a year ago, new transmission equipment was installed along the border, making it possible to use the Chinese cell phones all along the North Korean border. There has been government owned cell phone service inside North Korea since 2003, but it is expensive for foreigners ($1200 to get the phone, plus about a dollar to make a one minute call, and 25 cents to receive a call.) The government tightly controls who can have a North Korean cell phone, and its assumed that the phones are tapped. The North Korean system is limited in its coverage. The system covers the highways running between Pyeongyang and Hyangsan, Pyeongyang and Gaeseong and Wonsan and Hamheung, as well as those cities themselves. The North Korean system was soon linked to the Chinese system. This was bowing to economic demands. China is North Koreas largest trading partner, and the source of oil and food assistance. It was North Korean officials working along the Chinese border who forced the issue on connecting the two nations cell phone networks. But now more powerful transmitters allow Chinese cell phones to pick up signals throughout North Korea. This means that the countryside, long completely cut off from anything outside North Korea, was getting news within minutes. Before the cell phones, rural areas often didnt get news about events in North Korea for weeks. That has all changed, and it making North Koreans aware of what a mess their communist rulers have made. The government quickly picked up on this and made cell phones illegal (except in the hands of authorized officials) throughout much of the country. Hundreds of cell phones have been seized, but people have simply gotten much better at hiding them. Chinese cell phones are  much cheaper to own and operate, and preferred over the government issue ones. The growing number of refugees from North Korea, and unrest inside the country, is due in part to the increased use of cell phones. Many government officials are in a panic over this, because they have always tightly controlled the flow of information. The current generation of North Korean officials have no experience in a society that has free flow of information. They cant force the Chinese to turn off their cell phone service along the border, and many officials have become addicted to the convenience of cell phone use. It would appear that the North Korean dictatorship will end, not with a bang, but with a ring tone. 

 


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