Magazine

North Korea: Are mobile phones a good thing?

Balloons at the Korean border
Image caption Launching helium balloons with propaganda leaflets at the North Korean border

North Korea is the most isolated country in the world, with the flow of information strictly controlled. But from the South Korean side, Lucy Williamson found out that the North's borders - both physical and electronic - are not completely impenetrable.

It is mid-morning on a hillside overlooking North Korea, and Mr Lee is about to have a fight.

He is not a big man, nor a particularly threatening one, but there are certain things he feels passionately about. And one of them is balloons.

Every weekend, he comes here to float giant helium balloons across the de facto border with North Korea, each one carrying bundles of leaflets, newspaper cuttings and anti-Pyongyang cartoons.

Today, though, the wind is in the wrong direction and Mr Lee is not one to waste a good balloon. His supporters, who have come to watch the launch, disagree - and as they are paying for it all, things are getting a bit tense.

After a bit of pushing and shoving, a compromise is reached, and the giant 30ft (9m) balloons are unfolded and prepared for flight - the roar of the helium gas drowning out conversation around the open jeep.

It is a surreal way of sending a message from one of the world's most connected countries.

Standing here, just a few kilometres from North Korea, I can watch BBC video on my phone, send a photo to my dad in London or my friend in New York, and dial direct anywhere in the world. Anywhere, that is, except the country I can see lying between the grey-green hills in front of me.

North Korea is the most closeted country on earth. International phone lines and internet access are almost non-existent - tightly restricted to the elites, and even then closely monitored.

One North Korea analyst here in Seoul says it seems to be the only country in world history to have outlawed tuneable radio sets in peacetime, and where access to foreign language publications needs security clearance.

Perhaps balloons are not such a far-fetched idea at all. But then, they are annoyingly dependent on the weather conditions to reach their destination.

Mr Lee and his supporters prepare for lift-off. Three long plastic balloons tower above their captors, tugged by the wind, as the small crowd stand to observe a moment's silence.

And then they are released, sailing quickly up over the hills, and back towards Seoul, exactly as Mr Lee predicted.

Mobile network

But then Mr Lee may be a bit behind the times anyway. Leaflets dropped by balloon may have been novel in his day, but news inside North Korea these days is just as likely to be circulated by text message or DVD.

Despite not being connected to the internet, or an international phone network, mobile phones and computers are still seen as fashionable consumer items. And new technology is having an effect inside the country, and helping to form opinion there.

Image caption Young people in Pyongyang can get mobile phones but not the internet

Some estimates say that these days, at least in the border areas, around a quarter of North Koreans have a DVD player at home, and that even rural schools have a computer or two.

Handy for the steady trickle of DVDs and memory sticks that leak across the Chinese border.

And a few years back, North Korea launched a domestic mobile network, operated by the Egyptian carrier Orascom. So far more than 600,000 people are registered users.

In a country of more than 20 million, that is by no means a tipping point, but when that country is North Korea, it is not insignificant either.

A couple of weeks ago, a North Korean defector here in Seoul described how even the North Korean government is using the mobile network to bolster its credibility.

There were two kinds of opinion back home, she said - state-controlled opinion, spread through posters and state media - and public opinion, formed by word of mouth, and office parties, North Korea's water-cooler moments, if you like.

Image caption North Korean soldiers defend its heavily protected border with the south.

Last year, she said, when the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il went to China, the state put out a message that its top leadership was working with China to correct the failures of the country's middle management.

Rumours of Mr Kim being spotted in China began to circulate via mobile phones, and then, when his visit was shown on state television that evening, it seemed to confirm those innocent-looking text messages, thus boosting trust in the state and, by implication, its message.

The assumption is that connectivity carries big risks for the regime. But some analysts say it might hold benefits as well.

Because the country's IT infrastructure is still in its infancy, they say, there is the chance for Pyongyang to build a system that would enable it to easily track users, listen in, spread its own messages more subtly, and control access.

But then, even Mr Lee is catching up with the times. These days he slips DVDs into his balloon bundles along with the leaflets.

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