Huawei secretly helped North Korea build wireless network: report

Chinese telecom giant supported Pyongyang's 3G mobile phone system, along with Egyptian company Orascom, reports WaPo.

    Orascom Telecom Chief Executive Naguib Sawiris and North Korean officials take part in an inauguration ceremony of third-generation mobile communication service in Pyongyang on December 15, 2008 [KCNA/Reuters]
    Orascom Telecom Chief Executive Naguib Sawiris and North Korean officials take part in an inauguration ceremony of third-generation mobile communication service in Pyongyang on December 15, 2008 [KCNA/Reuters]

    Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, the Chinese company placed on a United States blacklist because of national security concerns, secretly helped North Korea build and maintain its commercial mobile phone network, the Washington Post has reported.

    The newspaper on Monday published its investigation into Huawei's ties to North Korean wireless provider Koryolink, citing sources and internal documents from the Shenzhen, China-based telecom giant.

    Huawei partnered with a state-owned Chinese firm, Panda International Information Technology Co Ltd, on a number of projects in North Korea over eight years, the Post reported.

    Such a move would raise questions about whether Huawei, which has used US technology in its components, violated American export controls to furnish North Korea with equipment.

    The US put Huawei on a blacklist in May, citing national security concerns. That designation banned US companies from selling most US-made parts and components to Huawei without special licences, but President Donald Trump said last month that American firms could resume sales - in a bid to restart trade talks with Beijing.

    Huawei did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but said in a statement to the Washington Post that it had "no business presence" in North Korea. It was not immediately possible to reach the Panda Group, the parent company of Panda International.

    The Huawei statement also said that the company is "fully committed to comply[ing] with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries and regions where we operate, including all export control and sanction laws and regulations".

    The US Department of Commerce, which also did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has investigated possible links between Huawei and North Korea since 2016, but has not publicly connected the two, the Post said.

    Huawei and Panda vacated their Pyongyang office in 2016 as sanctions were ramped up, the newspaper reported, adding that Koryolink today operates with aging equipment because Huawei no longer provides maintenance or software upgrades.

    Koryolink and 'A9'

    The connections between Koryolink and Huawei appear to add to the US government's suspicion of Huawei at a time when economic and political goodwill is strained.

    The Post's investigation traces the genesis of the 3G Koryolink network to a 2006 visit to Huawei's headquarters by Kim Jong Il, the father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

    Koryolink was launched in 2008 as a joint venture between Egyptian company Orascom Telecom Holding and the state-owned North Korean company Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp. The two operate Koryolink through CHEO Technology.

    North Korean traffic cops
    A traffic policeman uses a mobile phone in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang [Petar Kujundzic/Reuters]

    Huawei, through Panda, furnished Koryolink with antennas and base stations transported to North Korea by rail through the Chinese border city of Dandong. Their employees worked out of a hotel located close to Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang.

    The Chinese telecoms giant provided network integration services - including the management of an automated callback system, according to the Post. 

    In Huawei company documents, certain pariah nations with which the firm does business are referred to with code names. North Korea's was "A9", said a former employee who spoke with the Post. The employee added that in documents the country name would be identified in Roman letters - instead of Chinese characters - as "chaoxian".

    Koryolink authorities apparently turned to Huawei for assistance in developing encryption protocol - unavailable to ordinary users - to prevent surveillance of regime officials and their families. Huawei also reportedly helped set up the technology to eavesdrop on regular network users.

    Since 2011, Orascom has been owned by Russian firm Vimpelcom and is now called Orascom Investment Holding. In 2018, the company received a UN sanctions waiver for Koryolink.

    Orascom originally had an exclusive licence to run the mobile network in North Korea. However, the government in 2013 created a competitor, Kang Song, with equipment from Chinese telecom company ZTE.

    Kang Song and Koryolink now have a combined 5 million total mobile phone subscribers in North Korea.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies