Friday, November 25, 2011

Keeping the Lid on Will Only Get Harder

Document dump alert! This commentary was published first by Daily NK on November 24th, 2011.

‘North Korea Sees Big Jump in Mobile Phone Use’, one AFP report announced on November 16th. AFP was not alone; in a piece on November 21st, Reuters added its voice, proclaiming, ‘Secretive North Korea Opens Up to Cell Phones.’

The interest of the two international news agencies had been piqued by the news, revealed in the third quarter earnings report of one half of North Korea’s monopoly 3G cell phone service provider, Orascom Telecom, that there are now more than 800,000 cell phone subscribers in the country.

At this moment of apparent progress, there are even those who see North Korea as a country on the cusp of a digital revolution. One, Dr. Alexandre Mansourov, a senior associate with the Nautilus Institute, wrote in a recent piece that Pyongyang could be about to “bandwagon with China’s digital juggernaut and catch up with the digital revolution in the South one day.”

Sadly, this is an unlikely outcome. But it is certainly sensible to contemplate whether the rapidly approaching era of one million North Korean cell phone users could one day herald a revolution of another kind, one along the lines of the bottom-up, citizen-led, SNS-driven Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East.

Pyongyang’s determination to use access to information as a way to control the North Korean people certainly militates against it. Recently, North Korea’s leaders have been particularly active in trying to block off the flow of information coming in, with controls over: ▲ illegal border crossing; ▲ use of Chinese cell phones; and ▲ private smuggling all strengthened, and violators punished unusually heavily.

Simultaneously, by cracking down on things like illegal radios, USBs, DVDs and other technology capable of containing, receiving or otherwise aiding in the distribution of external information, the authorities have also been striving to stop the circulation of external information within North Korea’s borders. Inspection units like ‘Group 109’ represent the practical enforcement of these efforts, and sources report that while in the past violations could be sidestepped through bribery, currently the official emphasis is very much on enforcement of the law and on punishment. In a period of harsh repression, Party cadres and members of the security forces are bound to reassess their incentives.

And yet, despite these repressive steps, it remains the case that there is now a form of spontaneously arising ‘public opinion’ in North Korea that there was not fifteen years ago, and this is something which can mostly be attributed to two things; marketization and the associated spread of technology.

Even as recently as the early 2000s, that information which did pass between civilians in North Korea was exceedingly simplistic; for example, “South Korea is doing well”, or “China has succeeded in reform and opening.” But now, thanks to marketization, there has come recognition of the essential nature of good, high quality, reliable information.

Take the example of rice prices. In North Korea today, rice prices are held to be among the most basic of information, something without which trading would be exceedingly difficult and inefficient. Fortunately, rice prices are not considered a state secret, and so they can be transmitted freely on a domestic cell phone using the Koryolink network. And yet, rice prices and exchange rates are not merely numerical values; because traders need to know about cause and effect, their transmission is guaranteed to elicit 2nd and even 3rd levels of information too, and this information can have a subversive edge; for instance about policy changes, agricultural conditions, Sino-North Korean economic cooperation or the presence/absence of international aid. Anyone with an interest in trading rice is sure to take a deep interest in all of these other things.

In addition to which, idle complaint such as “rice prices are so high, it is making life pretty hard” is also possible, since it does not trigger the state’s cell phone surveillance system, which is automated in the first instance and relies on the presence of key words in conversation.

Thus, while it is clear that spontaneously arising ‘public opinion’ and mild criticisms of this sort do not yet have the power to greatly affect official decision making, the very fact that people are making and communicating private judgments about information made independent from the explanations and analysis of the official media is an immensely meaningful change. Fatalistic resignation may still be the mainstream response to most major developments, but it is apparent that there is now the tendency to think about and analyze external information and the aims of domestic policy.

However, we must avoid over-interpreting the signs. As with the watching of South Korean dramas on North Korean DVD players, the presence of 800,000 cell phones in North Korea symbolizes an important phenomenon and an unexpected step forward, but it does not mean North Korea is becoming freer, or is likely to have its own Jasmine Revolution any time soon.

First, this is because if an average family in North Korea were to have three members, and any one family were only to have one cell phone, then 800,000 phones in the country would still only mean 2.4 million people with access to a cell phone, or roughly 10% of the population. In addition, given the overwhelming financial supremacy of Pyongyang over provincial areas, it is likely that a large majority of those phones reside in the capital region. As such, all we can say with certainty is that the number of cell phones in circulation represents a good indicator of the size of the affluent class in the country.

Second, because it is simply not Kim Jong Il’s intention, nor is it in his interest, to offer the people of North Korea the option of communicating freely. Simply, Koryolink, in which the North Korean state is a partner, is a good way for the regime to earn money. The fact that the company offers a discount on bills paid in Euro is proof of this purpose. Koryolink also allows the regime to issue propaganda about the development of the country, an increasingly important point when many other plans for the strong and prosperous state appear set to go up in smoke.

However, there is room to take heart. During yesterday's International Media Conference for North Korea Press Freedom held in Seoul, Daily NK president Park In Ho pointed out that it is the very same people who use cell phones, watch DVDs and carry illegal USB sticks who will find out time and time again that no matter how well educated they are and how successfully they trade, they cannot live the life they want to live because the regime won’t allow it. Every year that passes will bring more and more traders and students, cadres and ordinary women into closer and closer contact with each other. Invisible relationships will be built, information and modest grievances periodically aired, and people will thus become better able to appreciate that their country is not the place the authorities want them to think it is. This is a long but slippery slope for the regime.

It is not, in short, the ‘kotjebi’ who will lead the revolution in North Korea. When it happens it will be led by those young people from Pyongyang universities who have been deprived of a year of university education in order to get the construction of Changjeon St. done on time. It will not be easy to keep such a country in chains for too much longer.

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