An estimated 2 to 3 million North Koreans have cellular phones, but the Koryolink network they run on is heavily monitored, its users are unable to access the internet and international calls all but impossible for most. And with Pyongyang continuing to tighten border security and enforce control through political purges, these rules seem unlikely to change any time soon.
But what if North Koreans could safely use mobile devices to communicate without fear of surveillance, connect to the internet to read independently produced news or even telephone loved ones overseas?
Though a scenario like this might seem nothing more than a pipe dream, a new and commercially available cellphone technology already has the potential to go a long way toward helping North Koreans achieve these very goals.
Indeed, Endaga’s $6,000 CCN1 box, which allows anyone anywhere in the world to create and run a 10 km-radius private mobile network, could have some very interesting uses in a country like North Korea.
For by attaching the small device to a tree, rooftop or lamppost, connecting a power supply and internet connection, the CCN1 provides “voice, SMS and data service to standard GSM phones.”
Ostensibly designed to empower rural communities to build their own cell networks when it wouldn’t be commercially feasible for a national provider to do so, the CCN1 has an obvious but otherwise unwritten application: to provide communities an independent means of communication outside of the reach of an authoritarian government.
That’s because users with unlocked GSM phones in the area of CCN1 devices can insert specially made Endaga SIM cards and use the new network to start communicating not just with people inside its range but beyond, using its internet connectivity.
“We provide your subscribers real phone numbers, and we connect your users to the global phone network”
“We provide your subscribers real phone numbers, and we connect your users to the global phone network,” Endaga explains of the CCN1. “That means that your subscribers can call friends and family outside their community.”
And by using the CCN1 in conjunction with apps such Surespot, Telegram and Wickr – all increasingly touted by Twitter users affiliated with the Islamic State as safe means for communications – the difficulty for Pyongyang authorities to intercept and understand what is transmitted subsequently becomes increasingly difficult, even if signals can be intercepted.
But that’s not something Endaga likes to talk about.
When contacted about potential uses inside North Korea, CEO Kurtis Heimerl simply told NK News that his company tries “not to operate in authoritative countries” and that “we also try to avoid political statements.”
Yet it would seem that if an assortment of North Korea-related technical hurdles could somehow be overcome, the implementation of an independent CCN1 network could provide potentially huge benefits to society there.
“Make this work and the possibilities are limitless,” said Joshua Stanton, a North Korea rights activist and blogger at the One Free Korea website.
“You could create a virtual electronic banking network, virtual markets in food and essentials, virtual medicine to treat the sick, virtual family reunions, remote training in independent farming, virtual underground churches, and virtual underground unions.
“Make this work and the possibilities are limitless”
“Develop this system sufficiently and you can gradually build a shadow government to provide for the basic needs of the people in underserved areas, and to shift the balance of power away from the regime and toward the people.
And that, Stanton said, would allow a network of the CCN1 devices to become “everything that engagement with North Korea should have been all along.”
TECHNICAL HURDLES: THE SURMOUNTABLE?
In the case of North Korea, where Pyongyang has a near complete monopoly on the transmission of wireless information, the steps to ensure a completely safe and independent communications network using the CCN1 would be complicated – but not all necessarily insurmountable.
Naturally, providing the CCN1 with round-the-clock power in a country known for increasingly prevalent power shortages would be one core challenge. Linking the CCN1 to a safe and reliable internet connection to the outside world, a second. Safely importing and conspicuously positioning the physical CCN1 box, transmitter, another. Distributing the SIM cards and training, yet another.
But it seems Endaga were planning for the first two of these issues all along, with previous statements talking up the possibilities of solar power units easily fulfilling the devices’ meager 80 watts of required power, and satellite internet connections one relatively reliable solution to providing international connectivity where normal internet connections do not exist.
As a result of reports recently indicating that solar panels are increasingly becoming the norm in North Korea, it would seem the device could be a good fit from a power perspective. And from a communications perspective, satellite internet – technology to transmit and receive data from a relatively small satellite dish on Earth with an orbiting geostationary satellite – has long been favored by Pyongyang’s diplomatic corps over fixed-wire access, which can be more easily intercepted by their DPRK hosts.
What’s more, with hand-held satellite phone technology now able to provide users anywhere in the world with reliable internet access – from increasingly clandestine locations – the possibilities of concealing such devices and also powering their low voltage requirements with solar or even generator power, are certainly today very real.
TRANSMISSION, DISTRIBUTION AND TRAINING
Nothing in North Korea is ever as straightforward as it seems, though: even with potential for reliable power and independent internet connections, practical challenges begin to become apparent when thinking about the physical positioning of the CCN1 boxes, their connected antennae and satellite net connections.
While all the required technologies are small enough to import into North Korea without detection, the CCN1 box needs to be mounted at a high level, near no major physical obstructions that could prevent broadcast over a local 10km area.
Such overt positioning upon a tree or house, could of course draw unwanted attention from neighbors. And the risks in North Korea for anyone importing and running such clandestine networking equipment would no doubt be severe.
Unfortunately, even well-hidden devices would not necessarily be a solution, said Scott LaFoy, an independent North Korea geospatial data and satellite imagery analyst.
“I’d not be surprised if the Korean People’s Army – if not the Ministry of State Security – have sensors for picking up a wide spectrum of wireless transmissions.
“It’d be cumbersome, but as long as they have even a relatively primitive, but mobile, device, they could play a large scale game of “warmer and colder” until they found where the signal is strongest and where its coverage reaches,” he said. “With that, they can begin thorough searches for the pirate boxes and of people’s cellphones and houses.”
But that does not necessarily mean hiding the devices would be impossible, with pirate radio broadcasters showing how even in well resourced Western capitals, it’s possible to dodge interception for often extended periods of time. In this regard, London’s Kool FM, broadcasting since 1991 – the world’s longest running pirate – is notable.
Perhaps more difficult, though, would be figuring out a way for the required Endaga SIM cards to be safely distributed, as well as locals trained on safe usage of the system.
“You would have to figure out a way to distribute/sell SIM cards for your network, which would be very illegal (and therefore dangerous) and impossible to advertise to people,” said Intermedia’s Nat Kretchun, who has written extensively about information freedom in North Korea.
And for uptake of communications technology like the CCN1 to be effective, Kretchun added, would require something “rather intuitive, since you can’t advertise or train on technology in anything resembling scale.”
Making the required apps for safety and security easy enough to use for users, for the most part are unfamiliar with smartphones, might be difficult to achieve in North Korea unless they were to somehow baked into all of the devices using the Endaga network.
But beyond these technical issues, LaFoy flagged another related problems with the network: the risk of its own users compromising it.
“Any network is only as secure as its weakest element,” he said. “So if someone drops their cellphone with the Endaga SIM card and it is found by anybody with a little curiosity, the network is now compromised” LaFoy continued, though noting the level of compromise would be determined by whether the network revealed details of all its users to those accesing it.
LOCAL INITIATIVE: POTENTIAL DRIVER?
Overall, Kretchun said he believed the system would not work inside North Korea because it has “way too many moving parts for this to take root naturally.”
And beyond suggesting local people might not realize the potential of the technology, he said another important dynamic was missing. “There would have to be a profit motive for those bringing in the technology that would outweigh the risks of smuggling it in.”
Ironically, though, potential for profit is one of the reasons Endaga believe the system can work.
“Our thesis is that local people know how to solve local problems more than anyone else – and they’re motivated to do it,” Shaddi Hasan, CTO of Endaga, said in December year.
“If you spend time in rural areas there’s always a hustler, someone who can get a solar panel or a woman who knows where to get Internet if they need to. These are the folks we want to empower, the person who knows how to get stuff done in these neighborhoods.”
And as they are, Hasan’s remarks will no doubt resonate with North Korea observers familiar with the bottom up changes currently occurring inside the DPRK economy, which to date have seen decentralization of power result from large swathes of the population – particularly women – becoming involved in trade, in one way or another.
As such, even if the technology might not be a perfect fit for North Koreans, as it continues to evolve – and if Pyongyang relaxes in the way Cuba and Iran have relative to the DPRK, it’s possible the technology could become increasingly viable.
Meanwhile, for observers like Kretchun, it’s existing technology which could eventually surprise the state the most.
“From my perspective, even the albeit limited functionality of legal domestic cellphones is powerful and holds potential because they connect North Koreans to one another and are continuing to spread to more and more inside the country.
“3 million people who can call and text each other is more interesting than 300 people with full internet access. North Koreans are and will continue to figure out ways to test the limits of the technologies they have relatively easy access to.”
Main picture: NK News edit
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