In the 1990s the floods and famine killed somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population of North Korea. The government was able to control this massive humanitarian disaster by triaging supplies of food and fuel to the elite of the country. Those that suffered and died were those with low rank in the state, whom the populace had already been told to view with suspicion. The state thus remained relatively stable, despite enduring a horrific environmental and humanitarian disaster. Today, the North Korean regime is controlling access to cell phones and the intranet in the same way, treating them as a luxury available only to the richest, and thereby– the regime hopes– the most loyal members of the state.
Although the state believes that it can control the advent of IT in North Korea, this does represent a fundamental shift in the role of the state. North Korea has given up on a system of total information control. In the past, the State Security Department was able to monitor all communications within the state. With at least a million cell phones in the country, the state will now have to choose which calls to monitor, probably focusing on foreigners and senior government and military officials. Furthermore, the ability to call remote areas of the country allows information to be disseminated in a way that was previously unthinkable. Finally, the North Korean state has blessed the use of information technology in order to acquire scientific information from abroad to support development in North Korea. The ability to access foreign development data, even if it has been screened by the state, allows those with access to the intranet to become active information consumers.
So, while cell phones are not an immediate threat to the stability of the North Korean state, they represent a very new development. Combined with the rise of markets in the North, and a younger generation moving into the ranks of government, mobile phones and an increasingly information savvy population have the potential to fundamentally alter the state and, if North Korea can be persuaded to reform its economy, create a strong incentive to integrate the North into the dynamic economies of Northeast Asia.
Scott Thomas Bruce is the Project Manager on nuclear nonproliferation issues at CRDF Global and an Associate at the Nautilus Institute and the East-West Center. He is the author, most recently, of A Double-Edged Sword: Cell-Phones and Information Technology in North Korea (East-West Center, 2012), from which this article is adapted.