North Korea Shut Down Cellphone Network Twice On Saturday

Dave Maxwell asks:   Hmmm… did north Korea expect a cyber attack through its cell phone net work?

North Korea Shut Down Cellphone Network Twice On Saturday

Chad O’Carroll

North Korean authorities turned off the nation’s Koryolink cellphone network twice last Saturday as part of tight security procedures for events surrounding the 105th anniversary of the birth of DPRK founding President Kim Il Sung, NK News has learned.

The suspension of the network is notable: cellular shut-downs in the DPRK are relatively rare, with a senior Koryolink technical director telling NK News in 2015 that he had been instructed to fully turn off the network on only two occasions during his time working in the country.

“At about quarter to ten (AM) the whole phone network went down; the 3G for foreigners, the calling, and for the locals,” said Simon Cockerell, who was in Pyongyang on Saturday to attend anniversary events with foreign tourists. “The whole network was cut off for about three and a half hours.”

Foreign journalists observing the event, which finished at about one pm on Saturday and was attended by Kim Jong Un, were instructed not to bring cellphones, computers or lighters to the event, and had to go through four rounds of security before taking position in Kim Il Sung square for the military parade.

But those standing in streets surrounding the square were allowed to carry their devices, enabling Cockerell, his partners and local colleagues to notice the network shut-down.

The network was shut down later on Saturday for a mass dance and fireworks event – which Kim Jong Un did not attend – as part of evening celebration events in downtown Pyongyang.

“Two or three minutes before the fireworks began, the phone network went down again and was brought back up again about ten minutes after it ended,” Cockerell said.

One observer said such network shut-downs in the North likely took place for security and information control purposes.

“Events like Saturday’s parade are high-profile occasions, both from an internal and external perspective, so the network is likely being shutdown as part of the general security measures around the event,” said Martyn Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech website.

“High profile events, both involving Kim Jong Un and major military things like a nuclear test, could be prime targets for anyone planning a high-profile disruption.

“Cutting the cellular networks will hamper communications and make planning any sort of large-scale action more difficult (as well as) allow the authorities to hamper the spread of news and rumors should something happen.”

Cockerell said he’d never seen network shut-downs in the DPRK like the ones he experienced on Saturday: “There were times when suddenly internet was unavailable, but this seemed very clinical.”

Ahmed El-Noamany, a Koryolink senior technical director who worked in DPRK between 2011- late 2013, previously told NK News that shut-downs were implemented for “special reasons” such as nuclear tests and satellite launch attempts.

“(During those events) all networks were shut down completely,” El-Noamany said.

These events were “considered a national security event, so it was normal to secure everything, and within our network as well,” he said.

But after that event – which records suggest either took place in December 2012 or April 2013 – El-Noamany said the North Koreans developed “some kind of a new technology” which allowed them to only shut down certain regions of the network, without the need for a complete and simultaneous shut-down.

“These are only the two times that they did it in a very aggressive way, I would say – when they switched all the networks off, not (just) part of it.”

It is unclear if Saturday’s two network shut-downs were only focused around Pyongyang or across the country.

It is also unclear whether a similar network shutdown took place as Kim Jong Un attended the opening of Pyongyang’s Ryomyong street last Thursday.

Though journalists also had their phones confiscated for it, the network was still active in the minutes prior to security checks started early that morning.

Notably, there was no shutdown for another firework event on Sunday night near the Mayday stadium.

Featured image: NK News

David S. Maxwell
Associate Director

Center for Security Studies
The Walsh School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University
Office: 202-687-3834
Cell: 703-300-8263
Twitter: @davidmaxwell161

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