North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il held talks with an Egyptian telecoms magnate whose company set up and operates an advanced mobile phone network in the impoverished communist nation in a rare meeting with a foreign business executive.
Cairo-based Orascom Telecom launched a third-generation mobile network in North Korea in late 2008. The project drew attention as it brought a symbol of economic progress and individual freedom, the mobile phone, to one of the world's most harshly ruled societies.
The North's state news agency reported Monday that Kim met Orascom Telecom Executive Chairman Naguib Sawiris on Sunday and received an unspecified gift from him.
Kim "warmly welcomed" Sawiris' visit "taking place at a time when Orascom's investment is making successful progress in different fields," the Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. They "had a cordial talk" and Kim hosted a dinner, the report said.
KCNA reported Sawiris's arrival in a one-sentence report Friday.
It is rare for Kim Jong Il to meet foreigners and especially so when it comes to business executives, though Sawiris has previously held discussions with other high-ranking North Koreans, such as Kim Yong Nam, who often greets foreign dignitaries and sometimes represents the country abroad.
North Korea, which has carried out two underground nuclear explosions, struggles to feed its population of about 24 million people as two decades of government mismanagement, frequent natural disasters and international sanctions over its atomic ambitions have left its economy in a shambles.
Orascom said in November that subscribers to its 3G telephone service network known as koryolink and jointly run with the North's state-owned telecommunications company increased to 301,199 by the end of the third quarter last year, up sharply from 69,000 at the end of September 2009. The network was launched in December 2008.
North Korea granted an Orascom subsidiary a 25-year-license to operate in the country in a partnership with state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp.
Orascom also operates networks in several African nations, as well as in Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, according to its website.
Sawiris has visited the North before. In September 2009, KCNA reported he was given a friendship award for "positive contributions" to North Korean-Egyptian relations and for "his boundless respect and reverence for leader Kim Jong Il."
Though mobile phones are available in North Korea, their use is restricted. Phones do not allow contact with the outside world, or with the special telephone networks that foreigners are normally permitted to use inside North Korea. A previous short-lived mobile service for North Koreans was suspended without explanation in 2004.
North Koreans, however, can make mobile calls illicitly, sometimes using networks in neighboring China. North Korean defectors and human rights groups in South Korea say they can contact North Koreans via mobile phone.