Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kim Jong Il's death and North Korea's digital dilemma

The media are beginning to pay attention to a topic that has been a recurrent theme of this blog over the years, the implication for the future and for Korean reunification of the yawning and increasing digital divide on the Korean peninsula.  These days, a digital divide correlates also with an economic divide, at least if a nation like North Korea ever hopes to have a modern economy.  Interestingly, it also correlates with military capability in the sense that ICT is now integrated with most all modern weapons systems and has become a defining factor in modern warfare.  An article in Forbes explores how the "Death of Kim Jong Il Highlights North Korean Tech Famine."  Also worth reading is the Forbes piece on "Creating Bridges into North Korea."
John Walcott, writing for Bloomberg, explores why North Korea is a "hard target" which poses a great challenge for U.S. and other outside intelligence services.  His article notes that A simple fact is at the heart of the intelligence challenge posed by North Korea, David S. Maxwell, the associate director of the Security Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an interview. “What makes it hard for us to penetrate is the same control of information that keeps the regime in power,” he said. North Korea relies on an 11-year-old network of underground fiber-optic cables that’s harder for outsiders to tap -- and easier for the authorities to monitor -- than are cell phones, satellite communications or the Internet. In a telling point, the Bloomberg article notes that technology may finally turn the tide, as it’s doing elsewhere, by forcing even North Korea to change, even if not to abandon its reclusive and repressive ways. Barbro Elm, the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, recently reported that she had taken a trip from Pyongyang to three other cities and had strong domestic cell phone service the entire way. She had international service only when she was near the Chinese border and could connect to Chinese towers. I believe that technology has already begun to have its impact on North Korea,which faces a stark dilemma. It can either adopt and use the new mobile broadband and digital technologies, thereby developing its economy and nation, or it can seek to control and limit their use, a choice that will also necessarily limit the nation's economic and social development.

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