Reports: North Korean cellphone network goes nationwide

North Korea’s nascent cellular telephone network, which was launched in the capital city Pyongyang earlier this year, has been extended to major cities nationwide, according to several recent reports.

The expanded network now covers several provincial capitals in addition to major highways linking Pyongyang to the cities of Hyangsan and Kaesong and Wonson to Hamheung, according to a report in South Korea’s Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper in early September that quoted the North’s official Korean Central Broadcasting Station (KCBS).

A total of 40 base stations have been installed in the country to establish the network, said the South’s Yonhap news agency last week in a report quoting the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

The first cellular telephone service in the country, which is widely regarded as Asia’s most closed and secretive society and is one of its poorest countries, went into operation around the beginning of this year in Pyongyang and the Rajin-Sonbong free trade zone at the point where North Korea borders China and Russia.

The network was constructed by Northeast Asia Telephone and Telecommunications Co. Ltd. (NEAT&T), which is a joint venture between Thailand’s Loxley Pacific Co. and the Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp.

NEAT&T holds a 27-year contract to provide telecommunication services in the North Korean part of the trade zone and it may also have exclusive rights to run national cellular and international telephone services although reports differ on these latter points. Loxley Pacific keeps a low profile and is generally unresponsive to press inquiries making exact contract details difficult to confirm.

The network uses the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) favoured in most of the world, including neighbouring China and Russia, but not used in South Korea, which exclusively uses Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology for its cellular network.

Cellular telephones are not understood to be widely available to North Korean citizens, many of whom do not have fixed-line phones, and some reports have said the network is reserved for government officials. Similarly, Internet access is hard to come by in the country and only a few connections to the global computer network, all via neighbouring China, are thought to exist.

The Pyongyang government keeps a close eye on its people and even the smallest infraction of laws can result in punishment. Analysts have speculated that the widespread availability of communications tools such as cellular telephones and the Internet could lead to a reduction in the government’s ability to control citizens.