Pyongyang’s Grudging Iron Fist

27 Nov

The proliferation and subversive impact of cellular telephones in North Korea seems to be overblown, and Pyongyang appears to have the upper hand.

First of all, in a seriously depressed version of Black Friday, here’s what it takes to buy a cellphone in North Korea.

The process of cell phone procurement is an example par excellence of bureaucratic inefficiency, which is of course precisely what is needed by a regime that incentivizes loyalty through the highly unequal distribution of opportunities to demand rents.

First, the individual wishing to obtain a cell phone must go to his or her local Communications Technology Management Office (CTMO; in provincial capitals only) or a subordinate arm of the same (in smaller cities) to obtain a three page application form. This form, once filled in, must be stamped by the Ministry of Public Security officer assigned to the individual’s workplace or, for those without official workplaces, attached to his or her local people’s unit.

Having paid off the public security official in cigarettes or cash (more often the former, according to this author’s sources, because it arouses less friction) he or she must submit the stamped form to the CTMO or equivalent, whereupon it is sent, with all the speed one would expect of the North Korean transportation network, to the Ministry of Communications in Pyongyang. At this point there is little else to be done but go away and pitch the proverbial tent, because at best it takes a month for the staff in the revolutionary capital to process the application.

Assuming, and it should not be assumed, that those checks done in Pyongyang don’t yield any incriminating evidence of wrongdoing (don’t forget, the North Korean legal system makes every adult a criminal in one way or another, something which can come back and haunt any individual whenever “rents” are desired), the individual will eventually be ordered back to his local communications office, whereupon he will be handed a payment form. He or she must then take this form to a bank, and engage with the separate, and no less inefficient, bureaucracy therein in order to pay the majority (though not all) of the cost of a phone and Koryolink network activation fee.[1]

The payment form, duly stamped by a functionary at the bank, must then be taken back to the CTMO or equivalent, whereupon it can be exchanged for half the stamped application form originally sought from the ministry in Pyongyang. Here, finally, the individual reaches a watershed moment: this form can actually be exchanged for a cellular telephone!

However, the pain is actually quite a long way short of being over. In a moment of uncharacteristic efficiency, the actual cell phone shop is often directly outside the communications office, but in a moment of karma-balancing inefficiency, it doesn’t open much, carries a limited amount of product and is pitifully understaffed. As a result, queues are long, as are waits. Assuming an individual lives long enough to reach the front of such a queue, he or she is finally offered the opportunity to hand over another $70-$100 and depart the scene with a brand new phone.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising that Scott Bruce is also skeptical about the subversive potential of digital technology.

Chronicling multiple aspects of the digital deluge, Bruce reveals how the North Korean state has pursued these developments through the prism of control, seeking to harness communications technologies to add confidence to the maintenance of power, rather than to hand over genuine freedoms to the people.

“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,” he points out in one, The Information Age. “Koryolink users, for example, receive daily texts of North Korean propaganda on their phones… 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.”

Just as a Hieronymous Bosch Triptych centers on competing themes, so Scott captures the tension inherent in the struggle between digitization, empowerment and control. With control trumping empowerment, he concludes, meaning that “those expecting that cell phones will lead to a Pyongyang Spring will be disappointed.”

However, it is not all wine and roses. If it were, North Korea would surely not have waited so long before taking the plunge. As Bruce points out, “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.” In essence, it means that totalitarian notions of absolute control have been abandoned.

“In the past, the State Security Department was able to monitor all communications within the state,” he points out. But, “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.”

That’s not all. “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.”

Of course, it’s how the dance between economic development and popular support for Pyongyang’s rule will go that no one can predict.

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