North Korea: Chinese cellphones spawn an information boomCAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts North Korea's long isolation could break down substantially this year, thanks to a volatile combination: aggressive market expansion by Chinese telecom companies, dramatic growth of Chinese border trade and North Korean experiments in economic reforms. As communications technology - led primarily by the spread of cellphones - seeps deeper into their country, North Koreans are beginning to communicate to an unprecedented degree with the outside world. But these developments are likely to bind them closer to China and South Korea, not necessarily to the West.
With Chinese encouragement, North Koreans are gaining more leeway to trade privately in food and consumer goods. According to aid workers and diplomats, North Korean elites are now enriching themselves through border trade with China, and Chinese businesspeople - whose incentive is profit, not the spread of ideology or regime change - have become the most influential agents of change in North Korea. Their most powerful instrument is the cellphone.
In 2003, Chinese cellphone companies began building relay stations along the North Korean border, and Chinese cellphones - and the prepaid phone cards needed to use them - are now said to be a hot black market item in North Korea. As many as 20,000 North Koreans are believed to have access to cellphones, which they use to conduct business with Chinese traders.
Thanks to these phones, ordinary North Koreans receive information about the outside world through Chinese business contacts or relatives in China and South Korea. Defectors now living in the South are able to maintain contact with people in the North. The government's control over information has never looked so tenuous, and ironically, greedy elites - whose support Kim Jong Il requires to stay in power - play a key role in subverting the cellphone ban.
The next step could be the spread of text messaging - a communication method that helped bring down a government in the Philippines, elect a president in South Korea, and spread information about SARS in China long before state-controlled media were allowed to cover the epidemic.
Few North Koreans have access to the Internet, but the spread of Chinese cellphone network coverage could change the picture quickly. This is especially likely considering that Web-enabled phones will likely become as common in northern China as they now are in South Korea, where many young people use mobile phones - not computers - as their primary means of accessing the Internet. These devices and their networks will then spread from Northern China over the border into North Korea.
Currently, North Korean Web access is through heavily controlled Chinese networks, so North Koreans looking at the outside world online will see a much more favorable picture of China than of the United States. Likewise, if North Koreans eventually access Korean-language Web sites and discussion forums emanating from South Korea, they will also find Korean cyberspace to be highly critical of the United States. Public opinion there is cooling to the United States, and the Internet generation is leading the way.
The role of the West in northeast Asia's cultural, political, and technological future will be further diminished by the fact that the most advanced innovations in mobile telecommunications technology generally come not from the West, but from South Korean and Japanese companies. Also, considering that the United States is not economically engaged with North Korea, North Koreans will be heavily exposed to Chinese and South Korean cultural products (movies, cartoons and so forth), with less exposure to Western culture.
Granted, many Koreans have mixed feelings about China's growing power in the region. Still, trends point to the development of a northeast Asian telecommunications landscape in which the United States and the rest of the West will play little role - and in which the Chinese role will be key. This telecommunications landscape, in turn, will shape the way in which Northeast Asians relate to each other and the rest of the world.
(Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN correspondent in Asia, is a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. This article is adapted with permission from YaleGlobal Online.)