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    Monday, December 19, 2011

    Reuter site - Information black hole as North Korean leader dies

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    Information black hole as North Korean leader dies

    Mon, Dec 19 05:44 AM EST

    By Jonathan Hopfner

    SEOUL (Reuters) - Few national leaders die these days with no one outside their country knowing about it. For more than 48 hours. Not even a mention on Twitter.

    Yet apparently no one, including South Korean intelligence services, was aware that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had died early on Saturday - until his passing was tearfully announced on state television on Monday.

    That medium itself appears antiquated in South Korea, frequently cited as the most wired country on the planet, where news is increasingly delivered and dissected via smartphone and social networking services.

    A night-time image of the Korean peninsula taken by an intelligence satellite in 2002 shows North Korea as a pool of darkness, in stark contrast to the blazing sea of light that is its prosperous southern neighbor on the other side of the world's most heavily militarized border.

    A decade later, little has changed.

    Kim's death appears to have been kept a close secret within a tight coterie at the top of the reclusive North. There was no stream of Facebook or Twitter posts from the Internet-deprived country to spread the news as with the "Arab Spring."

    South Korea's Internet users, accustomed to a near-instantaneous flow of information, were nearly as struck by the delay in the announcement as the news itself.

    "The depth of information that South Korean intelligence sources have (on the North) is shallower than that of Twitter," posted user Links_Arc, referring to the popular microblogging service. "It's very regrettable that the government only found out about Kim's death two days later."

    "The current government's hostile policy toward the North has resulted in a shutdown of communication channels with the North, and China raising its influence over Pyongyang," chimed in user EuiQKIM.

    FEW PHONES, BUT GROWING

    The North Korean regime's chokehold on information is made relatively easy by the country's limited communications infrastructure, making an Arab Spring-type scenario almost impossible, analysts say.

    According to International Telecommunications Union data, North Korea had fewer than two mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants last year. South Korea had 105.

    While 83 percent of South Koreans have regular Internet access, it remains unavailable in the North outside a handful of government ministries, hotels and diplomatic enclaves in Pyongyang.

    North Koreans with mobile phone and Internet access are "pro-government, pro-regime. They have nothing to gain from trying to organize an uprising. So, in that sense, it's hardly a useful anti-regime tool," said Cho Min, an expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

    South Korean bloggers' responses to Kim's death illustrated the ease with which potentially seditious messages can now be broadcast to a mass audience, something North Korean authorities have taken pains to prohibit.

    Many Twitter users posted messages of sympathy and even praise for Kim, despite rhetoric perceived as pro-North possibly running foul South Korea's national security regulations.

    "I pray for the bliss of the deceased Kim Jong-il," wrote user "helliumgas."

    Agencies with contacts in Pyongyang said Kim's death was likely to prompt the authorities to tighten their grip on communications even further.

    "We're expecting some form of lockdown on communications and travel in the immediate period as North Korean authorities move to stabilize the situation and prepare for mourning," said Geoffrey See, managing director at Chosun Exchange, a Singapore-based non-profit group that promotes academic exchanges with North Korea.

    There are some signs, however, that the regime's control on communications may be slipping. Mobiles are now increasingly commonplace among Pyongyang residents, and not just among the regime elite, said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which operates trips to North Korea.

    In the last couple of years, mobile phone use has "just exploded," he said, with people often using mid-range, China-made handsets to trade SMS messages, play games and browse weather reports.

    North Korea is this year expected to register the 1 millionth user of its new 3G mobile network, built in partnership with Egypt's Orascom.

    The North's mobile communications industry "has crossed the Rubicon, and the government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price," the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability said in a report last month.

    (Additional Reporting by Jack Kim, Miyoung Kim and Iktae Park; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

    Reuter site - Prince Alwaleed buys $300 million Twitter stake

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    Prince Alwaleed buys $300 million Twitter stake

    Mon, Dec 19 06:46 AM EST

    By Sitaraman Shankar

    DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an investor in some of the world's top companies, has bought a stake in Twitter for $300 million, gaining another foothold in the global media industry.

    Alwaleed, a nephew of Saudi Arabia's king and estimated by Forbes magazine to be the 26th richest person in the world with a $19.6 billion fortune, already owns a 7 percent stake in News Corp and plans to start a cable news channel.

    The purchase is remarkable because Twitter was a key means of communication for protesters in the Arab Spring revolts this year, violence that threatened Saudi Arabia until the kingdom unveiled a populist $130 billion social spending package.

    Twitter, which allows people to send 140-character messages, or Tweets, to groups of followers, is one of the internet's most popular social networking services, along with Facebook and Zynga.

    The Twitter stake, bought jointly by Alwaleed and his Kingdom Holding Co investment firm, resulted from "months of negotiations," Kingdom said.

    Bernhard Warner, co-founder of analysis and advisory firm Social Media Influence, said: "The Arab world, of course, knows full well the value of Twitter. In the past year, it has been a force in politics, in regime change, so there is not a single person in that region in a position of influence who is not following the increasing power of Twitter.

    "(Alwaleed) must see Twitter as something that is going to be a really powerful broadcast channel," he said, adding the Saudi had got into the internet boom belatedly, with mixed results, and appeared to be "kind of late" to the game again.

    Investors in Saudi Arabia were more bullish, sending shares in Kingdom up 7 percent to 8.40 riyals.

    "One of the few sectors to record significant revenue gains in the last three years has been technology, which is why Kingdom would see Twitter as a good addition to its diversified portfolio," said Hesham Tuffaha, head of asset management at Bakheet Investment Group in Riyadh.

    Saudis are increasingly turning to satellite television, online news providers and social networking to stay abreast of world events. The world's No. 1 oil exporter announced a series of stricter regulations for journalists earlier this year.

    Alwaleed, who has a sizeable stake in Citigroup, has spoken in favour of broader political participation, fair elections and effective job creation across the Arab world.

    IPO HOPES

    Investors are eagerly anticipating an initial public offering from Twitter, which said in September it was in no hurry to go public. It raised $400 million in venture capital financing this summer.

    It now counts more than 100 million active users who log onto the service at least once a month. Facebook, the world's largest social network has more than 750 million active users.

    Internet search giant Google recently launched a social networking service dubbed Google+ which some observers say could lure users away from Twitter.

    Shares in online games developer Zynga ended at a 5 percent discount to their issue price on their trading debut on Friday, and analysts said any valuation for Twitter could be misleading.

    "You could put any number of zeroes behind a valuation of a private company. Before it goes public, it is almost meaningless," said Warner.

    "This is a very small group of investors which has put money into this thing. That will be diluted and diluted and diluted again until it goes public. And that is when we will see what the value is. These are kind of magic numbers at the moment."

    Kingdom owns a near-30 percent stake in Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which runs a range of media titles.

    "Our investment in Twitter reaffirms our ability in identifying suitable opportunities to invest in promising, high-growth businesses with a global impact," Alwaleed said.

    Alwaleed subscribed $500 million to last year's General Motors IPO. In August, he unveiled plans to build the world's tallest tower in Jeddah.

    (Reporting by Sitaraman Shankar; Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in London and Matt Smith in Dubai; Editing by Erica Billingham and Dan Lalor)

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