Up to this point, Huawei has made a valiant effort at defending its reputation against a US-led opposition campaign that’s stoked fears the company is basically a proxy for the Chinese central government and security apparatus. Pressed to defend its actions and ban of the company’s products, the Trump campaign has offered up a kind of pre-emptive war defense — that just the threat alone justifies the actions taken. That’s the same sentiment former US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge shared with me in a phone call in recent days. But now, finally, news has emerged that will offer Huawei’s critics the strongest evidence yet of why they’ll argue the company can’t be trusted, and it involves the company helping build a wireless network inside North Korea.
New reporting from The Washington Post makes clear that Huawei helped North Korea build and launch its internal Koryolink wireless network a decade ago, a project for which Huawei teamed up with China’s state-owned Panda International Information Technology company. It’s also a project that got underway after North Korea’s then-supreme leader Kim Jong II made a visit to Huawei’s headquarters in China, which led the company to contribute things like wireless network infrastructure and encryption services to the repressive regime’s plans.
This is disturbing news on a number of levels. Koryolink is one way North Korea keeps tabs on its citizens, with the new reporting making it clear that the network includes eavesdropping mechanisms made possible by the Huawei technologies. Among other things, North Korean officials can use the network to intercept calls and texts, in addition to capturing screenshots of user activity at random so that authorities can see what they’re up to.
In response to the newspaper’s reporting, Huawei said it “has no business presence” in North Korea. A defense that clearly relies on a present tense formulation of the answer, while saying nothing about the past. Meanwhile, there are two concerns here. In addition to the obvious (providing material support to a dictatorship), much of the commentary out Monday about this news speculates that Huawei may have done an end-run around myriad sanctions to perform this work.
“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” of the United Nations, United States and European Union, Huawei told the newspaper.
Relations between the US and China still remain frosty, at best, and the Huawei ban is still no closer to being resolved by US officials. Suffice it to say, today’s revelations make the issue infinitely more complicated and offer evidence that will likely help ostracize Huawei even more than it is already.