UN curbs could cut North Korean telecom links

An agreement by the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea could see the Asian nation’s few telecommunications links with the outside world cut.

Security Council members are debating what action to take after North Korea claimed it tested a nuclear device on Monday morning. The test hasn’t been independently confirmed but at that time seismic monitors in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan detected activity coming from the northeast corner of North Korea where it supposedly took place.

The U.S., U.K. and France are pushing for sanctions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. This deals with “threats to the peace” and “acts of aggression” and provides for a range of sanctions including “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”

The country is already one of the most isolated in the world when it comes to communications and media and any sanctions would make it even more remote.

There are only a handful of international telephone circuits into North Korea and many telephones cannot be reached by direct dialling. Instead calls are routed through switchboards where foreign language skills lack, service is curt and calls are likely to be dropped at any moment. Only a few companies and government departments have phone or fax numbers that can be reached from overseas.

Inside the country reliable information on phone service is unavailable. According to the most recent data from the International Telecommunication Union there are about 1.1 million telephones lines in service in North Korea, or 46 telephone lines per 1000 inhabitants, one of the lowest rates of connection in the world.

Major cities are linked by a fiber optic network installed in the 1990s by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). However, quite how much the network is in use remains, like so much in North Korea, unclear when viewed from the outside.

A GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) network was launched in Pyongyang in 2003 by Northeast Asia Telephone and Telecommunications Co. Ltd. (NEAT&T), a joint venture between Thailand’s Loxley Pacific Co. and the state-run Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp. The network was expanded to other cities during 2003, according to state media reports. Phones costs more than a thousand dollars — putting them well out of the reach of almost all in the country.

In 2004, shortly after a massive explosion ripped through a train yard in the north of the country, reports suggested that mobile phone service had been suspended. The train blast happened hours after a special train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il passed through the town, and was viewed by some as an assassination attempt. Speculation followed that the explosion was triggered by remote control using a cell phone.

However, confusion remains about the true state of service. The NEAT&T network was never reported to have been operating in the town, and its proximity to the Chinese border means that the explosion could have been triggered by a phone on a Chinese network.

About a year ago on a reporting trip to the south’s border with the north, signals from a GSM network carrying the North Korean network identification could be received, indicating it might still be in operation.

North Korea has built a nationwide intranet that links many domestic establishments such as government departments and libraries. Terminals allowing access to the network can be found in some libraries, but the intranet provides no link on to the Internet. There is no reliable information on Internet access in the country, but it’s likely that if it does exist it is limited to the very top levels of government.

Kim Jong Il himself is a keen Internet user, according to some reports, and keeps two computers in his office. In 2000, at the end of a series of meetings with then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he famously asked for her e-mail address and later told a visiting South Korean politician that he enjoyed visiting the home page of the Blue House, the official residence of South Korea’s president, and that of the Unification Ministry.

Limited e-mail service is available between Internet users and major North Korean companies through Silibank, a company based in the Chinese city of Shenyang. Silibank requires North Korean companies to sign up for one of its e-mail addresses and then charges foreign counterparts for the cost of relaying messages into North Korea. It claims it has a 10M bps (bits per second) Internet link, but this is impossible to verify.

Elsewhere on the Internet a number of home pages, several of which claim to be the official home page of the country, are available but these all operate off servers based in foreign cities including Tokyo, Beijing and Berlin. North Korea has a top-level domain, .kp, but no name server exists that allows it to be used on the Internet.

Experts say that the bottom line with North Korea’s limited communications systems is that they are strictly controlled and all communications is likely monitored by authorities, which are keen to quash any threat to the absolute power of Kim Jong Il.

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