Beyond sanctions: S. Korea should open direct, people-to-people cell service for N. Koreans

With much of the North Korea policy debate understandably focused on sanctions this week, I hope North Korea watchers won’t miss this new report from Amnesty International on the efforts by “Swiss-educated reformer” Kim Jong-un to seal off all unauthorized contact between his subjects and the outside world. In recent years, the principal medium for such contact has been the use of Chinese cell networks whose signals penetrate a few miles into North Korea. Those calls had become an important lifeline for refugees in China and South Korea to communicate with and support their families, to broker escapes and migrations, and for smugglers to send food, money, medicine, and other needed goods to North Koreans.

Perhaps in response to these developments, after coming to power in 2011 Kim Jong-un tightened border security, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea that had been steadily increasing in previous years. Individuals who spoke to Amnesty International reported a similar tightening of control over communications near the border in order to stop the cross-border movement of people and to exert more control over the grey market trade. North Korean specialists as well as some interviewees reported that the state has increased monitoring and often blocked mobile signals on the Chinese networks, and imported state-ofthe-art surveillance devices. Individuals’ testimonies also confirmed findings of the Commission, which reported that a special department of the State Security Department had sophisticated equipment to pick up the emissions of “Chinese mobile phones”. Individuals who reported having experienced the surveillance and the jamming of signals first hand told Amnesty International that they saw these actions as a tactic to intimidate potential users of “Chinese mobile phones.” [Amnesty International]

Amnesty’s report is also accompanied by this interactive “explainer,” which includes a video and slide show.

Most experts are skeptical that sanctions will pressure Kim Jong-un into giving up his nukes at the bargaining table, and I’ll confess that I also have my doubts. It’s unlikely that anything short of a fundamental shift in the North Korean government’s world view — most likely, through a coup d’etat, or a breakdown of social control — will allow for a conclusive solution to its nuclear or humanitarian crises in the next five years. After that, it may be too late — North Korea will already be an effective and aggressive nuclear power.

Sanctions have multiple purposes, but none of them is more important to a broader North Korea policy than shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Sanctions can weaken the regime’s apparatus of control by denying it the means to pay and equip security forces, and convince official and military officers that the good times are over, and that time is against them. But this is only half of the strategy.

The other half of this strategy is to break the fear, hopelessness, dependency, and docility of the North Korean people, and to help them organize and rebuild a civil society from the foundations up. Information is power. Free communication will introduce North Koreans to the truth about life in the outside world. It will help spread a message of rice, peace, and freedom, raise North Koreans’ independent political consciousness, and stimulate a yearning for a better life than one lived under Kim Jong-un’s heavy boot. It will rebuild connections within separated and divided families. It has helped refugees in the South support their families in the North through a primitive hawala-like remittance system (that is inexplicably still illegal in South Korea). It will help South Korean NGOs fund the growing of food and its distribution to the needy, and to provide for North Koreans’ spiritual and medical needs. One North Korean woman has already used it to send cancer drugs to her sister. Eventually, it will help North Koreans organize and establish underground newspapers, unions, and political organizations. It could also help Seoul set up a well-regulated cross-border banking system to finance all of it.

But how? Creative minds are coming up with many brilliant ideas — and I hope they’ll keep working at it — but I think the technology and the infrastructure already exist.

Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]

The online bank will start operation by June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.

The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members. Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.

K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]

The free flow of information and money is the sine qua non of an engagement strategy designed to reach the people who want change, rather than a regime that resists it. For the last 20 years, Seoul poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money, including just maybe using its money to nuke up. In the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, we were told, Seoul had to take bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. By now, the results of this experiment speak for themselves. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and rather than reformed, has invested heavily in sealing its borders. 

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 8.05.12 AM

[Via Amnesty International]

Why is it, then, that China builds cell towers along the North Korea border, but South Korea does not? Why is it that one can call from Yanji to Musan, but not from Busan to Kaesong? Why is the Yalu River the only front in North Korea’s information war? Why does South Korea waste so much effort on small-ball games with leaflets and loudspeakers, when it could inaugurate Tongilnet, the first South-to-North cell phone service, operating on the same frequency as the recently confiscated Koryolink network? In an instant, it would become possible to call from the top of Halla-san to the foothills of Paektu-san. There’s no way Pyongyang could hire enough censors to monitor all the calls.

This is what strikes me as so dull-minded about Korea-watchers who say that with the closure of Kaesong, Seoul has lost its last bit of leverage over Pyongyang. Nonsense. Just imagine if signals from SK Telecom and other South Korean cell providers also leaked into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans chatting with their relatives in the South, reading the Daily NK on smartphones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. 

Why not do it now? Until now, political paralysis and appeasement have prevented Seoul from a step as modest as opening up the AM band to South-to-North broadcasts (which Seoul should do). Seoul’s own paranoid security services are also paralyzed by the fear that North Korean spies would also use this network, which is odd. After all, the handlers of Pyongyang’s spies, agents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.” It’s a silly and short-sighted policy. Times have changed, and so has the technology. It’s time for imagination and policy to catch up with the times and the technology.

~   ~   ~


Cellphones have the potential to change North Korea by empowering its citizens, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, said Wednesday. Schmidt, who was in Seoul to watch a Go match between artificial intelligence and a human player, visited North Korea in 2013.

“Since then I don’t think the situation in North Korea has gotten better; I think it’s probably gotten worse overall,” he told reporters. “I think all of us believe that the mobile phone is a strong, strong empowerer of individuals and that eventually the mobile phone penetration in North Korea will be a material impact in its internal structuring. That has not happened yet.” [Bloomberg, Peter Pae]


  1. You have stated that NK must never be backed into a corner where it feels it has no choice but to start a war. Some (including Andrei Lankov recently) have been arguing that’s exactly what we are doing. I don’t entirely agree. But if SK cell phone signals flooding the North is such a game changer, wouldn’t that move be extremely risky? How do you ensure that NK’s leaders will see a return to negotiating as in their interests?

  2. Because phone service represents a gradual erosion of state control, just like increased sanctions. There’s no “use it or lose it” moment. There’s always a diplomatic off-ramp for them to negotiate a peaceful transition from totalitarianism and hostility, to authoritarianism and coexistence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *