Huawei's Puzzling Wireless Project in North Korea

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Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

North Korea is considered the most reclusive country in the world. Why would its ruler, Kim Jong-Un, allow Chinese tech company Huawei to build-out the North's 3G infrastructure?

Chinese tech company Huawei’s secret project to help build and maintain wireless networks in North Korea is alarming, and, to some, surprising. After all, North Korea is considered the most reclusive country in the world.

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Un thrives on isolating the nation’s citizens and manipulating information. Should a North Korean resident even have the means to purchase a Western movie on the black market, they risk facing time in a labor camp or public execution. In July, Radio Free Asia reported seven teenagers were arrested for watching South Korean movies.

So why would Kim Jong-Un want 3G infrastructure in the North? Perhaps the answer is that this technology will serve as another means of control. State propaganda can be ramped up and, most alarming, citizen surveillance increased.

This is not a foreign concept for Huawei. Recently, the company announced plans to help Great Britain roll-out 5G technology. The United States issued a warning to British lawmakers that “millions of people would be exposed” to surveillance by the Chinese government.

To be sure, the North Korean regime has tacitly permitted markets to operate. Approximately 19 million people in a nation of 25 million directly and indirectly depend on the markets to make a living. These markets also provide a safe-space where citizens can freely assemble to trade news of the day, gossip, and express discontent about the regime.

However, adding 3G infrastructure and increased surveillance means the regime will have the ability to more closely monitor and control those markets, including who crosses the North Korean/Chinese border to bring across prohibited items such as foreign movies and South Korean TV shows for sale and distribution. This type of surveillance could increase the North’s information blockade.

Since Kim Jong-Un came into power in 2012 he has clamped down on the distribution of foreign films in the markets. However, a survey by the Unification Media Group revealed that despite the increasing crackdown and severe punishment North Koreans still have a desire to watch foreign movies.  

Additionally, the 3G infrastructure may help check a corrupted police force. Local police officers in North Korea are susceptible to bribery, playing to the favor of the residents. It is difficult for the regime to monitor these bribes; however, with advanced technology the government can better control crime.

We do not know if this surveillance is indeed in place or how it will be deployed. However, an estimated 20 percent of the state’s population currently subscribe to state owned cellphones. Encouragingly, should the 3G infrastructure be operational, the information blockade enveloping the country may be further cracked. North Korean residents could circumvent any surveillance the regime has in place and use these cell phones to have broader access to China, South Korea, and information from the Western world.

The United States needs to remain firm on its economic sanctions against North Korea and closely monitor China’s influence with the regime. Huawei’s secret operations are a clear indication that China is continuing to strengthen an alliance with Kim Jong-un.

And just recently, China and North Korea recommitted to strengthened exchanges between their armies—further guaranteeing that China remains North Korea’s strongest ally. The deepening relationship is concerning.

North Korea is one of the worst human rights violators in the world and China is a country that doesn’t necessarily balk at such violations. According to Freedom House, while abuses such as forced abortions and sterilizations are less common than in the past, they continue to occur in China.

While technology can be a blessing to humanity, as North Korea continues to build out its 3G infrastructure and look for unique ways to deploy surveillance among its citizens, we must keep in mind that technology in the hands of the wrong person can be a great threat.