By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, September 6th, 2010
North Korea, one of the poorest and most politically isolated countries in the world, is undergoing something of an economic renaissance thanks to a growing software industry fueled in part by American media company News Corporation, a published report declared Monday.
Developers from the country’s General Federation of Science and Technology were responsible for creating the mobile phone games “Men in Black: Alien Assault” and “The Big Lebowski Bowling,” according to reporters Matthew Campbell and Bomi Lim, writing for Bloomberg.
Both games are based on films produced by 20th Century Fox, the movie arm of Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire. News Corp., which ultimately published both games under its Fox Mobile label, owns the Republican-leaning Fox News Channel.
Conducting business with North Korean firms is not illegal despite recent rounds of international sanctions over the country’s nuclear weapons program. “[Unless] they are linked to the arms trade,” Bloomberg noted, the business relationship is fair game.
The reporters’ scoop came from two executives at Nosotek Joint Venture Company, which specifically markets North Korean-developed software to clients around the world. In this case, the games were picked up by the Ojom unit of mobile games developer Jamba, which was sold to News Corp. in 2006 by digital content verification and infrastructure firm VeriSign.
At time of the purchase, Jamba sat atop one of the tech boom’s fastest-growing hundred-million-dollar markets, offering ringtones and mobile games to older model cell phones with limited Internet capabilities, via a service called Jamster.
The company was criticized for allegedly misleading advertisements promoting ringtone downloads at low cost, when in reality the firm was selling monthly subscriptions that many customers simply failed to cancel because they were unaware of the agreement.
“News Corp.’s intention is clearly to hard-wire Fox’s presence in the entire content lifecycle, from creation through production and then, inevitably, to delivery on the little 2 x 3 screen on your cell phone,” BetaNews reported, at the time. “It already had a mobile content provider, Mobizzo, launched in June 2005 under the Fox Mobile Entertainment division.”
In May, 2008, Jamba eliminated its Ojom unit, citing a new stable of agreements with game publishers around the world.
“The games market has matured significantly over the past few years,” CEO Mauro Montanaro announced in a media advisory. “We now already have over 100 partnerships with well-known games publishers … Therefore, we no longer see the need to develop our own content in this specific area.”
Jamba became Fox Mobile shortly thereafter.
The revelation by Bloomberg’s reporters appears to set up a simple question: could funneling software development dollars to North Korean programmers enhance the country’s danger to the developed world?
The writers allowed two competing perspectives:
“Any sort of transaction that gives cash to the North Korean government works against U.S. policy,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy group. “The coding skills people would acquire in outsourcing activities could easily strengthen cyberwar cyber-espionage capabilities. Mobile devices are the new frontier of hacking.”
North Korea’s information technology push began in the 1980s as the government sought to bolster the faltering economy, said defector Kim. That drive also led to the creation of a cyber-military unit in the late 1990s, he said. He runs North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group composed of defectors who have graduated from North Korean universities.
Nosotek’s Eloesser disputed any connection between programming for games and cyber-espionage.
“Who could train them, as neither me nor the Chinese engineers who are cooperating with the Koreans have those skills ourselves?” he asked in an e-mail. “Training them to do games can’t bring any harm.”
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., and specifically his Fox News Channel, has long been criticized as being in the tank for right-wing political interests in America. Earlier this year the media tycoon donated $1 million to the Republican Governor’s Association, according to Internal Revenue Service documents.
Describing Murdoch in 2007, public broadcasting icon and former Nixon aide Bill Moyers summarized: “If Rupert Murdoch were the angel Gabriel, you still wouldn’t want him owning the sun, the moon and the stars. … But Rupert Murdoch is no saint. He is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity.”
While Murdoch’s U.S.-based political allies most commonly take an offensive posture toward North Korea — which poses a serious military threat to its southern neighbor, a U.S. ally — American firms doing business with their country’s declared enemies is certainly not unheard of, even in recent history.
The Fox News Channel has been criticized recently for raising the specter of terrorism over a planned Islamic community center in New York City, with numerous hosts and guests claiming the funds may be coming from a nefarious, radical Islamist source. That source turned out to be none other than a Saudi prince and major News Corp. stakeholder: a fact that critics of the conservative network did let pass without comment. Comedy Central host Jon Stewart jokingly wonder whether Fox News had become some kind of terrorist command center.
At the end of August, President Obama imposed stricter sanctions on North Korea by executive order, including “arms sales, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, and the procurement of luxury goods” on a list of banned trade activities with the country, according to the Christian-Science Monitor.