Is Orascom facilitating crimes against humanity in North Korea?

New Focus International is reporting that North Korea has distributed cell phones to its secret police, and that the secret police are using them to hunt down potential refugees:

The distributions of cell-phones are being made as part of efforts to aid agents of the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security in preventing people escaping the country.

As part of the process of organising an escape, North Koreans intending to flee the country often make contact through cell-phones with those who have already made it.

The surveillance authorities are acutely aware of this, and the distribution of cell-phones is seen as a direct response to counter such attempts at reaching the outside world.

In June, our sources described, ‘This kind of cell-phone use and distribution is supposed to be illegal. The authorities are very much on edge about preventing escapes and seeking out channels of communication to the outside that they are handing out cell-phones to security agents.’

When a North Korean individual is discovered to have attempted phone calls with someone over the border in China, surveillance agents in the local area communicate via cell-phone in order to move quickly to cut that channel. [New Focus International]

That North Korea’s secret police would have the best comms Pyongyang can obtain for them isn’t surprising. Nor is it surprising that the secret police would use those comms to hunt down those who would flee their Fatherland for food and freedom.

It is still legally significant that these specific facts are being reported by New Focus, because in most U.S. sanctions regulations, such as those against Iran and Cuba, facilitating censorship or human rights abuses is a basis to block the assets of any entity that knowingly involves itself in such contemptible conduct. Because our North Korea sanctions regulations are among the weakest on the books today, there is no similar provision in effect with respect to North Korea. Section 104(a) of H.R. 1771 would weld this loophole shut by imposing mandatory blocking sanctions on any company that knowingly facilitates censorship or severe human rights abuses.

[This is what North Korea does to people who help others to escape.]

It’s frustrating that New Focus doesn’t say more about what sort of cell phones the security forces are using to help us sort the cats from the mice, but it is possible to make some educated guesses.

Potential escapees, traders, smugglers, and defection brokers illegally use cell phones that operate on Chinese networks — networks that reach a few miles into North Korea. Koryolink, a subsidiary of the Egyptian conglomerate Orascom, is widely believed to be the only authorized provider of cellular communications services in North Korea. It is possible, but unlikely, that North Korea’s secret police would use any other cellular network but Koryolink to communicate. If my assumption and New Focus’s reporting are both correct, Koryolink is on notice that the Inmin Poan Bu and the Kuk-Ga Anjeon Bowibu are using its service for purposes that could one day be punishable by the blocking of assets, and by criminal and civil penalties. Even the risk of blocking sanctions would likely be a deal-breaker for Orascom’s Board of Directors. After all, Orascom is already having trouble repatriating its alleged profits from North Korea.

That means that if H.R. 1771 passes, some hard decisions will be necessary for Koryolink to have a future, just as it will be true of other investors who have overlooked ethical concerns about their investments in North Korea. First, Koryolink (or Orascom’s directors) could very quickly and publicly decide that supplying the regime’s security forces is a legal and financial risk they aren’t prepared to accept. Then, Kim Jong Un would have to decide whether he’s willing to allow his security forces to be denied Koryolink’s services so that his other minions can keep it.

The other implication of New Focus’s report would be the use of Koryolink to isolate North Koreans, roll back the gradual marketization of its economy, and restore its fractured information blockade. Many supporters of engagement with Pyongyang take a see-no-evil approach to investment, justifying their actions with arguments that those investments contribute to the greater good by reforming the bigger system. If Koryolink is an instrumental tool in Kim Jong Un’s border crackdown, it would do much to undercut that argument.

Unlike most “engagement” deals with the regime in Pyongyang, I harbor a degree of ambivalence about Koryolink. I think it’s unlikely that they have anywhere near the number of subscribers they’ve claimed, and I suspect their phones are both closely monitored and (as with all resources in North Korea) distributed to loyalists, and those who can afford to bribe their way through the usual restrictions. Still, I recognize the potential benefit in allowing North Koreans, including elite North Koreans, to have the capacity to communicate from city to city about news, prices, and ideas, or to spread the word should there be a popular disturbance or a military mutiny in one of the provinces. The likelihood that the system is heavily monitored and equipped with a kill switch greatly mitigates these potential benefits.

Ultimately, however, what I don’t know about Orascom outweighs what I do know, and the things we know the least about are its financial arrangements in North Korea and the extent of its partnership with the state’s machinery of oppression. Those, too, could be deal-breakers. Perhaps they should be.

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