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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea’s Koryolink cellphone service has not been discontinued, its Egyptian backers told NK News on Thursday, denying reports that the company had stopped service and was “preparing for a full withdrawal from the country.”
“OTMT has not stopped its telecom operation in DPRK as it started prior to any sanctions and is a utility providing vital service to the people and does not fall under UN sanctions,” Noha Fanous, PR & Communications Senior Manager for Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding S.A.E (OTMT), told NK News on Thursday.
Fanous added that while OTMT had “deconsolidated the operation of Koryolink, the 75% owned subsidiary of CHEO Technology Joint Venture Co., from its consolidated and standalone financial statements since Q3 2015,” it would continue service there.
It will not, however, be “undertaking any new investments in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).”
Reports claimed that mounting UN sanctions and pressure from the U.S. had prompted OTMT, which owned a 75 percent stake in the joint venture network, to stop service in November.
Sources both living in and regularly visiting Pyongyang told NK News on Wednesday that there had been no indication the reports were true, with cellular service continuing to work as expected.
OTMT’s remarks suggest the company may have obtained a waiver from UN Resolution 2375, which as of January 9 requires all member states to have obliged their nationals from opening, maintaining and operating “all joint ventures or cooperative entities, new and existing, with DPRK entities or individuals…”
At the time of writing, a company spokesperson was yet to clarify whether this was the case.
Tristan Webb, an NK Pro senior analyst familiar with the Resolution, said that a caveat may have facilitated OTMT to continue working in the North.
“Although the UN Security Council has imposed a general ban on new and existing joint ventures with the DPRK, it has given discretion to its sanctions committee to approve JVs – in particular JVs not generating profit in the public utilities sector– on a case-by-case basis,” Webb said.
“Orascom could make a plausible case for approval, but it has to gain that approval by 9 January 2018 or its JV operations would be unlawful.”
Koryolink staff currently include four Egyptians working inside North Korea alongside two also based there from OTMT, a November directory of expats working in Pyongyang seen by NK News showed.
However, data from July, when Koryolink had eight foreign resident staff working in the country, shows that numbers of in-country employees are falling.
Martyn Williams, who specializes in North Korean technology, said that even if foreign staff had to one day pull-out, it might not necessarily cause problems.
“The North Korean engineers have presumably been learning for the last few years, so they probably have the knowledge they need,” he said.
“Depending on their training, service could suffer when there is a major problem, or expansion could be difficult,” he said. “But they have been running it for a while so it seems to be working.”
Koryolink has grown steadily in popularity since its launch in 2008 and was earlier in the year reported to have over three million subscribers, just over 10% of the DPRK population, earlier in the year.
But the company has reported major problems with repatriating profits, and a state-run competitor named Byol was established after its executives began inquiring about the money they were owed.
Orascom’s executive chairman Naguib Sawiris visited North Korea in April – reportedly his second trip in six months – amid suggestions that high-level meetings with the DPRK government about the future of Koryolink were taking place.
Edited by Oliver Hotham