North Korea Tries to Ramp Up Tech Infrastructure

Returning home one spring five years ago from a secret visit to Beijing in his armored, fully wired train car, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il got an unnerving, firsthand demonstration of the potential downside of technology. A huge explosion ripped through the Ryongchon border station, and some officials initially thought it was an assassination attempt triggered by a cell phone. As it turned out, the fireball was more likely the result of two trains’ colliding nearby, possibly as a result of miscommunication about changed schedules stemming from Kim’s clandestine travels. But regardless of the actual cause, that still mysterious incident, which killed or injured 1,300, persuaded Kim to temporarily shelve plans for extending cell-phone coverage beyond the 20,000 wireless phones registered in the country at the time.That may not seem all that surprising for such a closed society as North Korea’s, now locked in a heated standoff with the West over both its nuclear-weapons program and its jailing of two U.S. reporters. But even amid those tensions, the Hermit Kingdom is trying to stimulate its dire economic fortunes by slowly opening its economy to foreign business — and the lack of convenient cell-phone service has emerged as a major irritant, especially for the hundreds of Chinese firms active there, which make up the largest group of foreign investors. Those investors now actually have an ally in Kim Jong Il, who has quietly reversed his earlier decision and started upgrading the country’s dilapidated communications infrastructure. Toward the end of last year Orascom Telecom, the Middle East’s largest wireless firm, was awarded a contract to install a national cell system. The 25-year contract, in a joint venture with the North Korean state telecom entity, calls for a $400 million investment, which Orascom doubled down on by also investing in a bank and hotel project in Pyongyang.To read this Time report in full, see:
www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1906219,00.html

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