North Korea: Please turn off your cell phone… or else

Put your phones and personal electronics away in North Korea, or risk a messy ending.  The Telegraph reported this morning that cell phone users in North Korea will be deemed "war criminals," as part of the new rules being implemented for the 100 days of mourning following former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death. ...

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Put your phones and personal electronics away in North Korea, or risk a messy ending.  The Telegraph reported this morning that cell phone users in North Korea will be deemed "war criminals," as part of the new rules being implemented for the 100 days of mourning following former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death.

Of course, it's easy to see why the regime is becoming so antsy about cell phone usage. The Arab Spring protests were energized by Twitter and Facebook via cell phones, and other mass movements including the Occupy protests were spread through this medium as well. But the more pertinent question is, how effective will this crackdown actually be?

As Peter Beck wrote in 2010, there were over 300,000 cell phone users in North Korea, all on a network developed by Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom. Reuters reported last November that the number has since grown to nearly a million people on the 3G capable network. Analysts at the time said that the network posed little of a threat to the regime, mainly because officials had controlled outside information so tightly.  Additionally, severe limitations on the internet restrict access to any domain except a handful of historical sites that are accessible to a select few people.  However, as the Nautilus Institute's Alexandre Mansourov said in a report, "The DPRK mobile communications industry has crossed the Rubicon and the North Korean government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price."

Put your phones and personal electronics away in North Korea, or risk a messy ending.  The Telegraph reported this morning that cell phone users in North Korea will be deemed "war criminals," as part of the new rules being implemented for the 100 days of mourning following former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death.

Of course, it’s easy to see why the regime is becoming so antsy about cell phone usage. The Arab Spring protests were energized by Twitter and Facebook via cell phones, and other mass movements including the Occupy protests were spread through this medium as well. But the more pertinent question is, how effective will this crackdown actually be?

As Peter Beck wrote in 2010, there were over 300,000 cell phone users in North Korea, all on a network developed by Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom. Reuters reported last November that the number has since grown to nearly a million people on the 3G capable network. Analysts at the time said that the network posed little of a threat to the regime, mainly because officials had controlled outside information so tightly.  Additionally, severe limitations on the internet restrict access to any domain except a handful of historical sites that are accessible to a select few people.  However, as the Nautilus Institute’s Alexandre Mansourov said in a report, "The DPRK mobile communications industry has crossed the Rubicon and the North Korean government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price."

Of course, its not to say that the North Koreans won’t try their hardest to ban the technology. They did it in 2004 following the explosion of a passenger train, which officials suspected was due to a bomb controlled via a cell phone. To the regime’s chagrin, cell phone usage continued to grow in the expanding North Korean black market, with relay stations set up on the Chinese border that connected North Koreans with their counterparts in the South.

Kedar Pavgi is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

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