Wednesday 26 June 2024

North Korea Finally Adopts 4G/LTE

Following years of continued isolationism and economic under-achievement, North Korea languishes near the bottom of the world’s telecom maturity index alongside Afghanistan and Turkmenistan (who also happen to be struggling under repressive political regimes). To make matters worse, in 2022 North Korea achieved the lowest score in the world for economic freedom. It barely needs saying that developing a healthy and prosperous telecommunications sector isn’t exactly high on the dictatorship’s agenda.

Mobile penetration is estimated to have eased up slightly to have reached 19% in 2021, yet the high cost of ownership coupled with strict censorship makes mobile communications the exclusive domain of senior government officials and diplomats.

Data from GSMA Intelligence shows that there were 7.51 million cellular mobile connections in North Korea at the start of 2024. However, note that many people around the world make use of more than one mobile connection – for example, they might have one connection for personal use, and another one for work – so it’s not unusual for mobile connection figures to significantly exceed figures for total population.

GSMA Intelligence’s numbers indicate that mobile connections in North Korea were equivalent to 28.7 percent of the total population in January 2024. The number of mobile connections in North Korea increased by 206 thousand (+2.8 percent) between the start of 2023 and the start of 2024.

For those citizens living close to China, it has been possible to obtain Chinese handsets and SIM cards, and to connect to towers (illegally) located just across the border. While this offers access to the outside world and at much lower prices than the state-controlled offerings, the risks are high including steep fines and the possibility of jail time.

North Korea has been slightly more effective in building an IT sector and a nascent digital economy on the back of a concerted effort to grow a sizeable, well-trained IT workforce. But even here, its capabilities have been directed more towards nefarious activities such as cybercrime and hacking into Western countries’ computer systems. North Korea’s determination to put itself offside with the rest of the world in pursuit of its ideology can only lead to tighter controls on communications inside and outside of the country.

North Korea has a population of 26.2 million and currently has three 3G network operators. Koryolink's network is 3G-only on 2100 MHz and they claim to cover more 90% of the population by their 3G network that can't be independently verfied. Koryolink is officially a joint venture between Egyptian Orascom Investment Holding and the North Korean state. However the Government of North Korea refused permission to transfer profits from North Korea to Orascom and even started Kang Song Net and Byol to compete with Koryolink. As result Orascom reported, that it effectively has lost control over Koryolink's activities some years ago.

North Korea launched the third mobile service provider called Byol in 2015. In the early days, the government-owned company provided wired Internet connections to foreigners residing in Pyongyang. But its 3G mobile service is now used by officials in the party, the government and the military as well as general citizens. The authorities set up the third telecom company, after Kang Song Net, to keep Koryolink in check. While Koryolink offers services both to foreigners and local citizens, Kang Song Net and Byol can only be used by North Korean residents. 

GSMA Intelligence data showed Byol closed 2023 with 7.1 million 3G connections and Koryolink 400,000. The research unit estimated only 28.3 per cent of the population has a mobile connection, all prepaid and only a quarter with smartphones. In 2023, the annual growth rate of mobile connections was less than 3 per cent. Smartphone connections grew nearly 12 per cent to 1.9 million.

North Korea’s two-tier telephone network is well documented and classifies two types of subscribers: Domestic users can call other domestic subscribers but not place international calls or access the internet, while international users can make calls to anywhere in the world except domestic numbers and access just about any website except those on the state intranet. This firewall between domestic and international users is one of several methods used to control the flow of information. What is less known is that on Koryolink there is a third level of subscriber: the “special user.”

The special users obviously the top rank of the leadership. These users are able to make and receive calls on specially equipped handsets that includes a domestic encryption system that prevents eavesdropping by outsiders. Huawei, one of the world’s biggest telecom infrastructure suppliers, provided much of the network equipment and was tasked with verifying that the encryption system did not introduce instability into the network.

However more cell phones does not necessarily mean more freedom of information and communication. In the years following the launch, even greater security measures were developed to expand control systems beyond the network level to the handset level as well. For instance, smartphones were built to block the installation of unapproved apps, and software was installed to take random screenshots to record what people are doing on their phones. This security system one of the most surveilled cellular environments in the world.

North Korean authorities have started signing up 4G subscribers after the country upgraded its network with second-hand telecommunications equipment bought mainly from China's Huawei.

According to local news site Daily NK, authorities have completed the construction of 4G cell towers in some areas of the country – with the goal of constructing over 80% of planned cell towers by 2025. Currently, 4G services are available mostly in the central districts of the capital, Pyongyang.