So why has the North Korea government, which has traditionally viewed control of information as part of its strategy for regime survival, allowed cell phones and the intranet within the country? North Korea hopes that access to some information technology tools will increase foreign investment in the country, and help build a more efficient economic system. Cell phones and the intranet will allow the state to control production and establish standards between Pyongyang and remote areas of the country. North Korea also hopes that the limited use of cell phones will encourage investment from overseas, in particular China. The lack of cell phones has been noted as one of the biggest challenges for investors dealing with North Korea.
Socially, the North Korean state believes that it can allow access to these technologies while controlling the social instability that they might invite. Defectors who worked in the IT sector in North Korea have called this the “mosquito net” strategy, meaning it will allow foreign investment in the North while blocking potentially harmful news and culture from the outside world. In short, the North Korea state believes that it can reap the benefits of an information technology network, while controlling it to prevent censured foreign culture from influencing the North Korean population.
It also bears noting that, while cell phones and the domestic intranet could be used to undermine the state, they can also be used to support the state control apparatus. Koryolink users, for example, receive daily texts of North Korean propaganda on their phones. Intranet activity, particularly activity on discussion boards, is closely monitored by the North Korean state security department. Finally, the network can be shut down by the state, if necessary. As Alexandre Mansourov notes, the venture has been blessed by the highest levels of the state security mechanism, which would not happen unless the security apparatus of the regime believes it could control the impact of IT use.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Those expecting that cell phones will lead to a Pyongyang Spring will be disappointed. The songbun caste system in North Korea ensures that those with access to cell phones in North Korea are the most elite 5% of the population. North Koreans of low rank, or those living in the country side, will never see, let alone own, a Koryolink cell phone. They will similarly never access the intranet.