Info black hole as Kim Jong-Il dies

2011-12-19 13:11

Seoul - Few national leaders die these days with no one outside their country knowing about it. For more than 48 hours. Not even a mention on Twitter.

Yet apparently no one, including South Korean intelligence services, was aware that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had died early on Saturday - until his passing was tearfully announced on state television on Monday.

That medium itself appears antiquated in South Korea, frequently cited as the most wired country on the planet, where news is increasingly delivered and dissected via smartphone and social networking services.

A night-time image of the Korean peninsula taken by an intelligence satellite in 2002 shows North Korea as a pool of darkness, in stark contrast to the blazing sea of light that is its prosperous southern neighbour on the other side of the world's most heavily militarised border.

A decade later, little has changed.

No tweets or Facebook updates

Kim's death appears to have been kept a close secret within a tight coterie at the top of the reclusive North. There was no stream of Facebook or Twitter posts from the internet-deprived country to spread the news as with the "Arab Spring".

South Korea's Internet users, accustomed to a near-instantaneous flow of information, were nearly as struck by the delay in the announcement as the news itself.

"The depth of information that South Korean intelligence sources have (on the North) is shallower than that of Twitter," posted user Links_Arc, referring to the popular microblogging service.

"It's very regrettable that the government only found out about Kim's death two days later."

"The current government's hostile policy toward the North has resulted in a shutdown of communication channels with the North, and China raising its influence over Pyongyang," chimed in user EuiQKIM.

The North Korean regime's chokehold on information is made relatively easy by the country's limited communications infrastructure, making an Arab Spring-type scenario almost impossible, analysts say.

According to International Telecommunications Union data, North Korea had fewer than two mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants last year. South Korea had 105.

Uprising ‘unlikely’

While 83% of South Koreans have regular internet access, it remains unavailable in the North outside a handful of government ministries, hotels and diplomatic enclaves in Pyongyang.

North Koreans with mobile phone and internet access are "pro-government, pro-regime. They have nothing to gain from trying to organise an uprising. So, in that sense, it's hardly a useful anti-regime tool", said Cho Min, an expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

South Korean bloggers' responses to Kim's death illustrated the ease with which potentially seditious messages can now be broadcast to a mass audience, something North Korean authorities have taken pains to prohibit.

Many Twitter users posted messages of sympathy and even praise for Kim, despite rhetoric perceived as pro-North possibly running foul South Korea's national security regulations.

"I pray for the bliss of the deceased Kim Jong-il," wrote user "helliumgas".

Agencies with contacts in Pyongyang said Kim's death was likely to prompt the authorities to tighten their grip on communications even further.

Signs that control is slipping

"We're expecting some form of lockdown on communications and travel in the immediate period as North Korean authorities move to stabilise the situation and prepare for mourning," said Geoffrey See, managing director at Chosun Exchange, a Singapore-based non-profit group that promotes academic exchanges with North Korea.

There are some signs, however, that the regime's control on communications may be slipping. Mobiles are now increasingly commonplace among Pyongyang residents, and not just among the regime elite, said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which operates trips to North Korea.

In the last couple of years, mobile phone use has "just exploded", he said, with people often using mid-range, China-made handsets to trade SMS messages, play games and browse weather reports.

North Korea is this year expected to register the 1 millionth user of its new 3G mobile network, built in partnership with Egypt's Orascom.

The North's mobile communications industry "has crossed the Rubicon, and the government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price," the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability said in a report last month.

  • Linda - 2011-12-19 13:44

    At least they don't have a "Secrecy Bill"...

      Squeegee - 2011-12-19 14:01

      Linda, actually what they have is far worse - but this is the sort of media control that make some of our beloved officials drool. They would love to have no independent judiciary, press or society.

  • Device - 2011-12-19 13:47


      Penny-wise - 2011-12-19 13:55

      hear hear !!! May they all die like the scum and dogs they are !!!

      Penny-wise - 2011-12-19 13:55

      Malema is next!

  • ReunionofIntelligentMinds - 2011-12-19 14:07

    One by one the dictators find out that even money cannot buy eternal life. For those remaining dictators still roaming the glamorous bling bling world - take note and repend before its toooooo late.

  • Deeteem - 2011-12-19 14:13

    This is excatly the kind of control the ANC would like to have in South Africa !! There a whole nation are sheeple, here only 60% !!!

  • Dmitri - 2011-12-19 14:30

    Having dealt with Koreans (both N and S), I find it a little unsettling that he died on "Saturday". N.Korea is run by the Generals and not the "dear leader". The Generals will first make sure that there is a worthwhile successor (who has been groomed for a while already) before announcing the death of the "dear leader". The new "dear leader" is just window dressing. Until you change the military hierarchy in N.Korea, not much (if anything) is going to change which is unfortunate (and rather dangerous)

  • Sphiwe - 2011-12-19 15:40

    I am happy he died - because last week the stupid chines killed our SA citizen- Linden for drug trafficing. More chines should die as well - How nice is that?

      strangerthingshavehappened - 2011-12-19 15:56

      Sphiwe, these are Koreans, not Chinese. You have the wrong country and nation.

      Panda - 2011-12-19 22:34

      i am chinese. are you sure the murderer is chinese? then make sure Kim Jong-Il is not Chinese. finally,tell you one point. The chinese hate dictator who he is. Do you know how many Chinese be killed in SA? You are a Satan!!!!!!

  • toibry - 2011-12-19 21:28

    God is the one who can do and prove better.

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