Kaesong and the North’s cellphone network – two indicators of conditions on the peninsula

UPDATE (8 Feb.) – Earlier this week, South Korea announced a possible increase in inspections of goods headed into Kaesong based on tightened UN sanctions of North Korea (due to the December rocket test). North Korea, in it’s typical calm, understated fashion, threatened to return the entire industrial complex to a military zone due to the provocations from the South’s “puppet Ministry” in charge of the inspections. By Friday, South Korea had backed down, announcing that the “government does not consider the Gaeseong Industrial Complex as a means of sanctions against North Korea.” The North’s reaction and the South’s move to calm the issue, all in less than a week, show both the importance and sensitivity to Kaesong in both countries.

In a previous column on heightened tensions between North and South Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, and the North’s shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong Island, I highlighted Kaesong as a key indicator. If the joint North-South industrial complex at Kaesong remained open, tensions were not that serious and would soon ease. If the South withdrew its people from the complex however, that would indicate relations were about to get much worse, including a possible retaliatory strike by the South on the North.

As we now know, conditions in the complex remained largely the same and tensions on the peninsula soon cooled.

With the upcoming rocket launch by the North, Kaesong remains a good indicator of actual relations between the two countries. Post-launch, if operations in the complex remain normal, then relations will soon return to an even keel. However, any withdrawal by the South, or expulsion by the North, indicate a much greater risk of instability and/or provocative actions.

A second, newer indicator is the North’s cellphone system. After an April 2004 explosion at a train station in the North, one that was likely an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il and triggered by a mobile phone, North Korea completely banned cellphones. It wasn’t until 2008, under a deal with the Egyptian company Orascom, that cellphone service was re-introduced to the North. A re-introduction that has reportedly gone quite well, with a million 3G subscribers by early 2012.

This widespread use of cellphones has created a concern for Kim Jong-eun’s safety, with a report this week that his security team occasionally halts cell phone service in areas he is visiting. This highlights a second useful indicator for North Korea – cellphone service. Any reports of localized cellphone outages could indicate the, planned or actual, presence of Kim. A widespread outage, especially if combined with signs of political instability (e.g. another explosion), could likewise indicate a threat to Kim and the reaction of his security officials.

Too often buried under bluster and politics, the actual conditions on the peninsula can be difficult to assess. These two indicators however, provide a rough guide for determining the state of North-South relations, plus domestic security levels in the North. As long as Kaesong and the North’s cellphone system are functioning on a relatively stable level, life on the peninsula remains ‘normal’.

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