The Washington Post has obtained internal documents showing the Chinese vendor and its partners have been working with North Korea’s national mobile operator for over a decade.
A former Huawei employee turned whistle-blower has passed on the documents to the newspaper, which has had them translated into English and shared on GitHub. The two spreadsheets are project logs of Huawei’s business in the China region, which covers North Korea (codenamed A9 inside Huawei). Details include project name, project status, account, country, internal business units, etc.
Huawei and its partners (for example Panda (Beijing) International Tech Limited, Xiamen Baoxin Supply China Co) are shown to have undertaken multiple projects for Koryolink, North Korea’s only mobile operator. The files recorded the latest initiated project with Koryolink took place in 2016, and the latest uninitiated project with the North Korean operator was logged in 2017.
The Washington Post reported that North Korea started building the mobile operator after the late Kim Jong Il (father of current leader Kim Jong Un and son of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung) visited Huawei in 2006. The operator was then set-up as a joint-venture between the Egyptian company Orascom Telecom Holding and North Korea’s Post and Telecommunications Corp. The newspaper claims it has also obtained additional files, not shared externally, that corroborate the case, with Huawei’s internal social network discussion records. Huawei is also allegedly to have developed a special encryption system for “special users” in North Korea.
At the time of writing Huawei has not responded to Telecoms.com’s request for comment, but its spokesperson denied to The Washington Post the company has any business presence in North Korea, though he does not deny the authenticity of the files. The spokesperson also claimed that “Huawei is fully committed to comply with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries and regions where we operate, including all export control and sanction laws and regulations”.
The timing of the report can be tricky for multiple parties. For Huawei, while the litigation in the US related to its business in Iran is still ongoing, the exposure of its long-term business relations with North Korea could become another roadblock to its efforts to be de-listed from the US Entity List. However, if Huawei had used other Chinese companies to ship equipment to North Korea, as was reported, it might have a case to argue that it has not dealt with a country under US sanction directly, which is different from the Iran case, where it is accused to have used its own subsidiary. But there are also cases, in particular system integration and software development projects, where Huawei has direct links. It would potentially need detailed investigation to determine whether American technology has been involved.
For the US it is also a precarious period. President Trump met CEOs from seven US technology companies on Monday, when he promised that the Department of Commerce would respond promptly to the license requests for Huawei sales. Afterwards, when asked about the North Korea report, the President said he will need to explore the issue. A further twist is the President has repeatedly claimed that he and the North Korean leader Kim are good friends.
For the UK and the European Union, the rather concrete case of Huawei’s link to North Korea would undoubtedly lend more weight to the argument that the company should be excluded from the construction of 5G networks, citing security concerns.