Huawei Technologies has refuted claims that its business operations in North Korea violated US sanctions against the hermit communist regime. The company is adamant that it had no business presence in the country.

Fresh revelations about the Shenzhen-based tech giant helping Pyongyang build the nation’s wireless networks emerged earlier this week in the US media.

It is believed that Huawei started talks with North Korean representatives soon after Kim Jong Un came into power in 2010, and the company’s ties with Pyongyang have been further cemented by multiple visits to China by Kim since March 2018. Huawei executives were reportedly among a delegation led by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he paid a reciprocal call on his ally in June.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un in Pyongyang in June. Photo: Xinhua

The Washington Post reported that, based on sources and documents it had obtained from a former Huawei employee, the Chinese tech firm, a frontrunner in the global 5G race, had “secretly helped” Pyongyang build and maintain a commercial mobile network.

Specifically, it partnered with the Beijing-based Panda International Information Technology, which is under the umbrella of the state-owned China Electronic Corp, on a number of projects in the country spanning eight years.

North Koreans use their handsets. Photo: Joseph Ferris/WikiMedia

The crux of the issue is that Huawei could have been transhipping American technology and components to North Korea, risking further sanctions by Washington. Huawei was blacklisted by the US Commerce Department in May and banned from doing business with American companies, ranging from operating system provider Google to chip supplier Qualcomm.

The revelation may also cast a shadow over trade negotiations between China and the US, after Donald Trump agreed to a reprieve for Huawei following his meeting with Xi in Osaka.

The US will ban business transactions with any foreign companies found furnishing equipment to North Korea.

“Huawei is fully committed to complying 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 UN, US and EU,” the company’s spokesman, Joe Kelly, said in a statement, which was also quoted by Xinhua.

But questions have still been raised about whether Huawei had conducted business in North Korea in the past, either directly or indirectly.

The fact that North Korea only launched its GSM mobile network in 2002 and 3G services in 2008 is an indication that Huawei could only be contracted by the state-owned carrier Koryolink to expand the country’s 3G coverage as well as the 4G trial run. Xinhua noted that Huawei’s 3/4G base stations had little technology or components imported from overseas.

It is also believed that Huawei is poised to launch a joint venture with a local partner in North Korea to sell not only telecommunications gear but also phones, once the US lifts its sanctions.

Trump met with Kim in the Demilitarized Zone last month and even stepped across the demarcation line in Panmunjom.