SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea is getting a state-of-the art mobile phone network courtesy of an Egyptian telecoms giant, raising questions about who will be making calls and sending text messages in a country where the vast majority of people are believed banned from using cell phones.
Orascom Telecom Chief Executive Naguib Sawiris arrived in the capital Pyongyang on Monday, the North's state news agency reported, providing no other details.
Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Holding SAE has been building the network after announcing a $400 million deal in January. The company said Sunday it was officially launching the third generation mobile service.
Orascom runs networks in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia and has not shied from investing in places considered challenging and politically unpredictable, such as Zimbabwe.
It was not clear what controls, if any, would be imposed on the network, which will provide phone service and data capability in one the world's poorest and tightly ruled countries.
Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, cautioned against reading too much into the new network, noting previous "optimistic predictions" that cell phone use heralded a loosening of controls.
"North Korea doesn't want its people to talk too much between themselves," he said.
North Korea restricts the population's access to all but officially sanctioned sources of information and Internet access is limited to top government and military officials.
North Korea has experimented with cell phones before and has a working mobile phone network, though not as advanced as what Orascom has built.
But visitors to the country say cell phone use by North Koreans has virtually disappeared since a mysterious train explosion in 2004 that killed an estimated 160 people. The blast was believed to have been sparked by a train laden with oil and chemicals that hit power lines.
Experts are divided about whether the crackdown on mobile phone use was related to the train explosion or was just an example of the regime getting nervous about losing control of its people.
In 2005, Thailand's then foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said North Korean officials said they believed mobile phones were used as a tool to gather intelligence by countries hostile to the hardline regime.
Orascom has said it intends to cover Pyongyang and most of the country's major cities during the first year of service. Subscriber fees had yet to be announced.
Paik Hak-soon, an expert on North Korea at South Korea's Sejong Institute, a policy think tank, said only elites will likely have access to the network, at least in the beginning.
"Government, party, military people are the big beneficiaries," he said.
Traders and people involved in the economy may also be allowed to use it, Paik said.
North Korea, where Paik estimates per capita gross domestic product is less than $500 a year, has taken some steps to liberalize its dilapidated economy in recent years and has courted foreign investment.
Despite its general impoverishment and trouble feeding itself without international assistance, the country has consistently emphasized the importance of science and technology in its development.
Most famously, it carried out an underground nuclear blast two years ago amid an international standoff with the United States and other countries trying to convince it to abandon atomic development. It also has an active missile program.
Despite the crackdown on cell phone use, North Koreans have found ways to make calls illicitly, such as using networks in neighboring China. North Korean defectors in South Korea say they can regularly contact relatives.
Orascom said it was the first foreign telecommunications company to be awarded a North Korean commercial telecommunications license and would have exclusive rights for four years.
The 25-year-license to operate in the reclusive state was granted to Orascom subsidiary CHEO Technology JV Co., which is 75 percent owned by the Egyptian firm. The remaining stake is held by state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp.