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N Korea is latest BPO challenger to India

world Updated: Jun 25, 2011 00:13 IST
Reshma Patil

India does not know it, yet. Some of India's techies are being outsmarted by a low cost software army being raised inside the secretive regime of North Korea - where surfing the Internet is illegal and personal computers are a luxury.

Decade-long research by a South Korean think-tank has revealed a comparative spurt in IT skills in Pyongyang, capital of the communist state reeling under economic sanctions.

Researchers in Seoul compared the IT outsourcing projects assigned to a group of North Korean workers from 1999-2008 with the output of IT staff in the headquarters of a multinational in India.

"We found that the quality of IT outsourcing work in North Korea was higher than expected,'' said a government adviser. "Their work was better than that of the team in India.''

The isolated state's emerging BPO and gaming software skills developed with the help of companies mainly in Seoul and China, pose no competition to India's 70-billion-dollar IT industry. This week, the US slapped fresh sanctions on North Korea that could include a ban on cartoons outsourced to Pyongyang animators. Foreign investors avoid Pyongyang, which has hardly a quarter million computers, poor English skills and restrictions on internal travel. Email access is severely restricted to the elite logging in on official computers.

Seoul sees the research as an indicator of the internal strides and extreme economic contrasts inside its nuclear-armed rival that last year torpedoed a South Korean warship.

Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-il last month visited his only ally China and toured centres producing e-books, smart grids, LCD technologies and integrated IT services. The main universities in Pyongyang have expanded IT courses since the last decade and churned out gaming and animation techies.

Seoul analysts emphasise that North Korea, separated since the two sides fought a war in the 1950s, is not the irrational state it seems to be. "They know what they are doing,'' said a professor. "They are driven by survival, not ideology."

Seoul observers say the IT skills across the border also indicate an emerging cyber threat. "We estimate that about 80 North Koreans are working in cyber-hacking units based in China,'' said an analyst.