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Secretive N Korea launches restricted cellphone service

A cellphone service has been launched in North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive and tightly controlled states, the official news agency has reported.

The move is striking in a country where the tuning of television sets and radios is limited to state channels and internet access is restricted to senior government and military officials.

Officials concluded a deal with Egyptian telecommunications group Orascom to launch a third-generation mobile network, but the service is likely to be available to only a few of North Korea’s 23-million inhabitants.

Orascom announced in January that it would invest $400-million in North Korea. It runs services in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, including Zimbabwe.

North Korea first experimented with cellphones in 2002, but recalled the handsets 18 months later after a mysterious train explosion that killed an estimated 160 people. Some experts argue that officials feared the incident was an attempt to assassinate the regime’s ”dear leader”, Kim Jong-il, and that cellphones were involved.

Others think the authorities were simply nervous that they were losing control of the flow of information. Officials have clamped down repeatedly on residents in border areas who are able to use Chinese networks with smuggled handsets.

The country recently said it was closing its border crossing with China and refugee groups say it has stepped up punishments for those caught trying to flee.

Paik Hak-soon, of South Korea’s Sejong Institute think-tank, said that ”government, party, military people” would be the beneficiaries of the new service, although traders might also be allowed to use it.

Orascom’s chairperson, Naguib Sawiris, has said he expects up to 10% of the population to use the service, with about 50 000 signing up in the first six months. Coverage will initially be limited to the capital and other big cities. He said: ”This is not just about providing third-generation mobile services. We are making history in a country that is developing and opening up in a remarkable way.” — guardian.co.uk

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