When you think of espionage, two things will probably cross your mind: Huawei and North Korea. Worse, recent reports have shown that Huawei has been working with the North Korean government for a project that aims to build a spy-friendly telecom network.
In a joint report by The Washington Post and 38North, Huawei has allegedly helped North Korea in building Koryolink, NoKor’s highly restrictive and invasive telecom network that went live back in 2008.
A year into operation, according to 38Noth, Koryolink had 91,000 subscribers, and that rose to 432,000 after two years and to just under a million subscriptions after three years. Today, there are estimated to be around 5 million cellular subscribers in North Korea split between Koryolink and Kang Song NET, a government-owned operator.
Documents uncovered by journalists had shown that Huawei, China’s leading telecommunication development company, had partnered with Panda International Information Technology, a company owned by the Chinese government to help North Korea with its telecom projects with cooperation starting when then-dictator Kim Jong Il visited Huawei’s headquarters in 2006.
According to the leaked documents, Huawei was responsible for providing the project with key technological infrastructures such as cellular infrastructure, network management, and encryption with the help of Panda to transport Huawei’s tech infra.
“It was clear that if the regime was going to attempt reintroducing telecommunications technology to the North Korean people, tight controls were needed to ensure it would not be used in subversive ways. Working together with Chinese technology companies, KPTC and Orascom created one of the most restrictive cellular environments in the world,” reads 38North’s report.
While it has been established that NoKor’s Koryolink has enabled the government to spy on its citizens, the discovery has shed light to the extent of spying that is done by the restrictive telecom project.
Aside from restricting NoKor’s locals from making international calls and access to search the internet, as well as tourists from making local calls and accessing local internet servers, the report reveals that there exists an elite organization in the North Korean government that use domestically-made encryption to make sure that phone calls cannot be monitored.
“Both sides recognized the importance and urgency of encryption in mobile communication and agreed that they would work together in this field. Both sides had a common agreement that the ordinary people will use the internationally standard mobile phones, and special users will use different mobile phones which contain locally-developed encrypted algorithm. KPTC explains the necessity and priority of encrypted mobile phone for special users, and OTH agreed with KPTC,” reads the minutes of a May 28, 2008 meeting in Kuala Lumpur between engineers from the Korea Posts and Telecommunications Co. (KPTC) and Orascom Telecom
Huawei’s role in NoKor’s surveillance project
And where is Huawei’s part in this? Well, Huawei was the one who tested the encryption while Panda was the one who provided the support software. While NoKor’s elites have built a fortress to make sure that their conversations are encrypted with the help of Huawei, everyone else in the country was subjected to government eavesdropping using a Huawei-powered software that lets law enforcement intercept citizens’ calls, texts, data, and even faxes.
This surveillance software was said to be initially made to target 2,500 people but was later scaled to 5,000 target citizens. It is unclear how big is the surveillance system is now but what’s certain is that North Korea has strengthened its surveillance efforts since then to block unapproved apps and take random screenshots to record users’ activity.
“Eavesdropping on communications was not a concern when it came to regular users of the network; however, at the same 2008 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the two sides discussed the specifications for a legal interception gateway, or “LIG.” Such systems are used in cellular networks worldwide and are usually how law enforcement can monitor communications from targeted phones,” penned by 38North in their report.
Aside from eavesdropping its citizens, Chinese companies were said to have assisted North Korean dictatorship in building jamming devices to intercept international signals in their bid to isolate the nation.
The discovery made by 38North only strengthened Donald Trump’s accusation that Huawei is being used by the Chinese government as a trojan horse to carry out espionage and economic sabotage.
While Huawei has been defensive in saying that it “has no business presence” in North Korea, it’s rather interesting that the statement from a spokesperson is in the present tense and it is still unclear whether or not Huawei had a past relationship with the North Korean Dictatorship.