Mobile phones the enemy in North's battle to keep control

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2002, 12:00am

THE SCENE IS a smoke-filled room in the Yalu River Hotel, a dingy hostel in Sinuiju, North Korea, across the river from the Chinese city of Dandong.

Several foreign journalists have invited their government minders to a game of pool, washed down by sweet local beer, the only entertainment left at 10 o'clock in the evening, to wash away the mutual irritations of the day.

Suddenly, the beep-beep of a mobile telephone interrupts the hubbub of conversation. An embarrassed Taiwan reporter fishes the guilty contraption out of her handbag and switches it off. 'We warned you,' said one of the minders in perfect Mandarin. 'You cannot use these in our country.' He takes it away, promising to give it back when she leaves North Korea.

While the rest of Asia is overwhelmed by the cacophony of mobile telephones, North Korea remains quiet and peaceful. This summer its state telephone company started a limited experiment in mobile telephones in the centre of Pyongyang but individuals are not allowed to use them.

Foreign visitors are supposed to hand their's over to customs and have them returned when they leave the country. North Korean business people who go abroad use them in China, where mobiles have become indispensable.

The absence of mobile telephones is part of the cult of control in what may be the world's most secretive country. Officials do not give name cards and usually identify themselves only by their family name.

Apart from officials, common people do not have telephones at home.

Internet is the same, reserved for foreign embassies and selected government departments where its use is tightly controlled. Kim Jong-il, the national leader, is said to be a keen user of the Internet. The country has a single Internet cafe, in Pyongyang's diplomatic area. It is unmarked, concealed behind a steel door and is available only for foreigners. About half a dozen people use it each day.

Foreigners who do business with the country are given an e-mail address in the northeast China city of Shenyang, where officials vet messages before sending them on to North Korea.

Diplomats say that Kim is keenly aware of information technology's importance in developing his country.

One problem is an acute shortage of foreign exchange, to buy computers and the necessary infrastructure from South Korea, Japan or China.

The other problem for the government is how to fit this IT revolution into the system of secrecy and control.

This system aims to prevent unauthorised contact between North Koreans and foreigners.

'We cannot go anywhere without permission,' said a South Korean businessman standing outside the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, one of a handful authorised to receive foreigners. 'If we go somewhere, we have to be accompanied. That is how the system works here.'

One day, showing the correct address, this reporter asked a taxi driver to take him to the famous Internet cafe. He declined, indicating he needed approval and a minder to go in the car.

The cavernous Koryo, with two towers to symbolise the two Koreas, looks little changed from my last visit in 1990. Men in dark suits and crew cuts who smoke constantly loiter in the lobbies and are presumed to be from the security services, watching everyone who comes in and out.

Hallways have tall mirrors which remind you you are not alone and, some say, contain cameras recording who goes past. When you make a telephone call, a loud click reminds you that someone is listening.

Down the street from the Koryo are apartment blocks guarded by barriers and soldiers with machine guns, said to be the homes of high officials who enjoy a living standard higher than that of ordinary people. They receive some of their salary in US dollars, enabling them to go to foreign exchange shops with a range of imported goods unavailable in normal stores. They buy video cassette players, on which they can see films and tapes more interesting than what is on radio and television.

Places which foreigners may visit are limited. They include the Grand People's Study House, a spotless stone structure with 30 million books and 100,000 square metres of floor space, which opened in March 1982.

In one room, dozens of people were working on computers, on the Intranet, but not Internet. In another, students were reading diligently beneath portraits of Kim and his father, Kim Il-sung.

Visitors were shown a classroom where students were learning English, by reciting their loyalty to the Great Leader.

Back in Sinuiju, it is easier to break the rules, thanks to the proximity to China, which enables people to watch three Chinese stations, offering them images they cannot see on their own channels.

You can use a mobile, because it can tap into the network in the nearby city of Dandong but do it in your room with the door shut.

An illegal call makes even the dullest conversation interesting.

Graphic: pyongcgbz