On my last trip to Pyongyang, I had the opportunity to catch up with some Egyptian expatriates from Orascom Telecom Holding over popcorn and whiskey. They were also kind enough to bring our team clubbing into the wee hours of morning.
Orascom Holdings is three companies each headed by a different brother of the Orascom family. Orascom Telecoms is headed by Naguib Sawiris, while the resorts arm Orascom Development is run by Samir Sawiris, and the construction arm Orascom Construction by another brother. All three brothers have stakes in different assets in North Korea, with the infamous Ryuggyong Hotel owned by Samih Sawiris. As of May 2010, when I had met Samih Sawiris in Switzerland, he had yet to visit Pyongyang. Recent pictures from Pyongyang indicate that this has changed.
The most exciting development to us was Orascom's 3G Internet service which was still under the testing phase. The plan is to roll out this service in the near future, although the service will only be available to resident foreigners in the initial phase. Approval for this service to be provided on a larger-scale to North Korean citizens, in any censored form, has yet to be given although the infrastructure to do so is in place. For foreign residents in Pyongyang, the service could offer cost-savings of up to 60-80 percent over current satellite internet offerings. There is no information on what security trade-off such a service might entail.
We also discussed text advertising and the current mobile service business. While text advertising is possible, there has yet to be approval for the company to run such a service. Currently, handsets cost Euro 50 each and there is a monthly subscription fee of 900 Won (we are not sure how this cost scales with usage). For reference, the unofficial exchange rate has fluctuated around 2500 to 3500 Won to 1 Euro this year.