Repressive Regimes Repress Technologies
By Mike Masnick, Fri Jun 04 01:00:00 GMT 2004

Mobile phone use had been growing among certain government officials and businessmen in North Korea. Last week, for no apparent reason, all mobile phones were banned. It's just another sign of the struggles repressive regimes have dealing with new technologies.

It's no secret that information technology and repressive political regimes tend not to mix well. Information technology, by its very definition makes it easier for people to communicate with each other as well as with the outside world - which, generally, is not something a dictatorship wants people to be able to do.

At the same time, no nation can hope to do much in the world economy without some access to modern technology - which has meant there is always an ongoing struggle in which repressive regimes try to allow new technologies and encourage their use, while turning around and heavily restricting them at the same time. This is seen in how China has tried to filter the internet while still encouraging a healthy internet economy.

The latest region to try to deal with this issue is the regime in North Korea, which allowed very limited use of mobile phones in late 2002 as part of an ongoing attempt at modernizing the economy. Those phones appeared to be catching on. In just 18 months, the number of mobile phones used in North Korea jumped from zero to approximately 20,000. The phones were apparently quite popular with members of North Korea's Foreign Trade Ministry and the nation's security agency. They were also used by many business men in North Korea. In fact, many Chinese and South Korean traders bought the phones and paid for the service themselves, giving them to their North Korean counterparts in order to have better communications into the nation concerning up-to-the-minute business conditions.

The government even appeared to be loosening up a bit, as just last week there were reports saying that foreigners in capital Pyongyang could now use mobile phones. However, as with many repressive regimes, a surprise loosening of restrictions can just as quickly be followed by an excessive tightening of restrictions. The latest report is that all mobile phones have been banned in North Korea. However, as with so much in the nation, much of this is speculation. The report claims that the ban occurred on May 25th, which is actually before the reports started leaking that foreigners could use their mobile phones. Either way, it seems likely that various repressive regimes are going to continue this ongoing dance with modern technology, as they try to build up their economies with one hand, while holding back their citizens with the other. They'll eventually learn they can't hold back progress forever, but that doesn't mean it won't be quite uncomfortable for many citizens until that time arrives.