(The questions below are taken from an interview with a local Korean broadcaster on 2/5/2013)
1) Mobile phones are a reasonably new phenomenon in North Korea, with even King Jong-Un himself sporting a smartphone, how might increased usage shape the political landscape?
The increasing use of mobile phones, including smartphones, in North Korea has the real potential to dramatically reconstitute the political landscape. An estimated 1.5 million people, according to one source, currently use mobile phones of some sort within the closed Stalinist state. The DPRK even has 3G capabilities–through a joint venture between Orascom (an Egyptian carrier) and Koryolink (a North Korean telecommunications entity)–which is actually comparable to the carrier services used by many South Koreans and Americans today. So this should be a wake-up all that the North is ready, willing, and certainly capable of becoming a wired and connected society–a dramatic shift from its recent past as one of the most closed-off and disconnected states in the international community.
2) Texting has become extremely popular in Pyongyang, and has increasingly been used as a tool in organising protests/riots around the world (think Cronulla riots in Australia, Mozambique riots, London riots), could this new technology lead to an uprising from the people?
Potentially, but nobody knows for sure. It’s not a certainty mainly because the DPRK has strategically disallowed the use of the internet, except for a few rare cases related to the military and one or two educational institutions. So in effect, the mobile phones used by North Koreans today allow for internal calls and texting, but not international/cross-border communications. This exclusion includes the use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. This is no accident since the DPRK leadership has likely carefully scrutinized what can and has happened when the general public is allowed to have such access to social media, in which existing government structures can potentially be toppled and replaced–the very outcome that North Korea is seeking to avoid at almost any cost.
3) Kim Jong-Un has been seen with a HTC smartphone (distributed by the KCNA on January 27, 2013). Is this a political choice, a personal preference of design or does he fancy himself a bit of a hipster going against the mainstream?
Kim Jong-Un is the current leader of one of the most provocative states in the world. So he doesn’t have the luxury to choose much of anything, let alone a smartphone with potential cutting edge technology, to be based on purely personal preferences. Almost every move he makes and every word he states can and most likely surely is scrutinized heavily to the highest level of minutiae both inside and outside the DPRK. The HTC smartphone Kim Jong-Un was seen recently with, placed directly next to him at a high level internal meeting involving military and foreign affairs officials, can be interpreted to signal to the outside world that the DPRK is not as technology handicapped as many people believe it to be. Add on to this the North’s successful missile launch last month and we have the makings of a country that may be seeking technology for further future provocative “predictably unpredictable” acts defined to include traditional (military and paramilitary) as well as non-traditional (cyberattacks) in scale and scope.
4) Do you think mobile phones may be another way for the regime to have a heavy hand over its people by spreading mass propaganda?
Certainly so. We believe that the DPRK has signaled an increasing interest and desire to shape the narrative in terms of how the world, including global media outlets, sees it. In the past, North Korea allowed for others to shape this narrative about its intents, capabilities, and desires. But now, maybe because Kim Jong-Un has grown up in Switzerland with the internet, Google, and probably Facebook, the North has become increasingly proactive about allowing foreigners, including foreign journalists, into its borders, as well as to release more information more quickly through its state news channel, the KCNA. So, with 1.5 million mobile phone users, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the DPRK leadership use it as another outlet upon which to shape the narrative about its alleged accomplishments (and maybe even failures, as seen in the April 2012 failed missile launch attempt).