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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: IT Edition

by | August 8th, 2014 | 06:46 am
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Over the last several weeks, we have seen several stories about information technology, and the perennial debate over whether it undermines the power of authoritarian regimes or can be used to buttress them. This is a cat-and-mouse game, and so the answer is clearly “both.”

On the subversive end of the spectrum, we were interested in the recently-concluded “hackathon” in San Francisco; NKTech has the best introduction to the event. Organized by the Human Rights Foundation, the objective was not hacking in the traditional sense. Rather, the HRF sought to marry the human rights and techy communities around the objective of penetrating the country’s information defenses (among defectors in attendance were Park Sang Hak, Kang Chol Hwan, Park Yeonmi and Kim Heung Gwang). Ars Technica reports on a lengthy interview with the winning team: a group that proposed smuggling flat antennas into North Korea that would permit North Korean households to pick up TV stations from SkyLife, a major South Korean broadcaster. Although the idea is still in concept only, it’s the kind of innovative thinking that the human rights community should be considering (remaining cognizant of the risks on the North Korean side).

Less encouraging are the ongoing phone wars along the border. Last month, Radio Free Asia reported on stepped-up efforts to jam Chinese cell-phone signals. DailyNK recently reported on the regime’s use of radio wave detectors, both fixed and mobile, that allow agents to pick up the precise location of calls from Chinese phones. But the story also notes that the agents are subject to bribes, citing examples where those making illegal calls are forced to pay a tax of 20% on the underlying remittance or business transaction.  In our surveys of Chinese firms, constraints on cellphone use were cited as one of the biggest barriers to doing business, and negotiations are continuing with respect to the issue in Kaesong. Bribery is clearly not optimal, but it underlines that the system is not only corrupt but leaky.

Finally, New Focus International reports that while jamming and using signal detectors, the regime is also distributing cellphones to agents of the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security to facilitate their work in apprehending border crossers. The story implicitly speaks to the quality of more traditional military and police communications capabilities in the country. Yet as with the signal detectors, this could be a two-edge sword for the regime if the agents decide to use the phones for other purposes.

Other Witness to Transformation posts on IT.