North Korea’s stifled communications sector showing signs of improvement

Although the notoriously reclusive country’s telecoms sector lags far behind other emerging markets, North Korea has seen notable growth in ICT over the past year, according to new information from BuddeComm.

The development of the telecoms sector in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is seriously impeded by the country's parlous economic state and the regime's general repression of communications. The DPRK is among the most centrally administrated and isolated economies in the world and GDP per capita is below US$2,000.

General infrastructure in North Korea is poor. Poverty and hunger are part of daily life for many citizens. However, the regime and elite members of political parties are awarded many privileges. As a result, fixed-line connections and GSM mobile services that began in 2002, only reached a small percentage of the population, and mainly in the capital city of Pyongyang. Ordinary citizens were not allowed access to the internet, were highly unlikely to own a computer, and did not have a fixed-line connection to the home.

The regime has marked 2012 the centenary of Kim Il-Sung's birth, a banner year and the country is focused on development of the economy. Spurred on by this historical event, the ICT sector is seeing some unprecedented growth. In a surprising development Egypt's Orascom Holdings was awarded a 3G WCDMA licence in 2008 and started commercial operations in 2009. Although restricted to making calls only within North Korea, and still beyond the wage of many citizens, uptake has soared to over half a million subscribers in two years.

The ICT sector has also seen, amongst other developments: increased software development through the KCC; production of low cost personal computers suitable for work and educational purposes; manufacture of mobile phones; international visits by party officials to electronics companies with presumably, a view to do similar localised development within North Korea.

Despite these improvements, ordinary citizens are severely restricted in accessing the internet and many still do not own a PC. International sources are blocked and monitored. In amongst this darkness, the country is believed to have developed an elite unit of hackers and software programmers. North Korea has even released its own social networking site, which it uses mainly as a source of propaganda.

North Korea's obsession with secrecy is being tested. The country certainly has the resources capable of engaging in the digital revolution. As they gain in maturity and experience in the digital age, a different view to the current regime's may evolve on how to grow the economy and raise living standards for the majority, rather than the privileged minority.

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