FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, December 17, 2004

Cell Phones as Change Agents in North Korea

Human-rights activists who follow events in North Korea are reporting that North Koreans are increasingly able to use cell phones to communicate with the outside world. The proliferation of phones and more powerful networks from nearby China are making it possible.

Cell phones are, of course, illegal in North Korea, a communist country where the government controls nearly every aspect of everyday life (cell phones were briefly legalized last year, but only for the government elite). However, North Koreans are able to purchase them during excursions (both legal and illegal) to China, and smuggle them back across the border.

Most cell phones are used for business or to speak with relatives in South Korea. But observers note that dissidents are beginning to use them as tools to report on conditions in the poverty-stricken country, which has been so destitute that people have been forced to eat grass and tree bark to survive.

Commenting on the situation, South Korean politician Kim Moon Soo says, "[S]omething strange is going on in North Korea. A lot of North Koreans are not happy under dictatorship and are not well off, so loyalty for [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il's regime has lessened, and they are beginning to yearn for the outside world. The leadership is having a hard time controlling people through food distributions, prison camps, and executions."

The harm that communications technology can do to repressive regimes can never be overemphasized. Communication empowers, and it's no accident that totalitarian states take great pains to control it. But newer technology disintermediates, allowing people to reach out to those who they could never contact otherwise. One of the most storied examples is the role of fax machines and photocopiers -- which seem so mundane today -- in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Smart Mobs