Geopolitics and High Tech: Big Surprises Await in Afghanistan and North Korea [Updated]

Last Updated Jun 14, 2010 3:00 PM EDT

Update: The story about Afghanistan's purported mineral wealth is getting some serious scrutiny from political bloggers who think the NYT story may have been planted -- or hyped -- to gin up support for the flagging U.S. war in Afghanistan, and who point out that the Afghan mining ministry is considered among its most corrupt government departments. See, for instance, Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy (hat tip to John Cook of Yahoo News) and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. High tech companies have long managed to sidestep most political and economic controversies associated with international suppliers and outsourced labor and services. But they're about to be put to the test, and in a particularly unexpected way: Both Afghanistan and North Korea look set to emerge as technology players. That means hardware and software companies are going to have to become more like the oil industry by cultivating the ability to negotiate geopolitical currents.

According to U.S. government analysis, Afghanistan has an estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits, including such electronics necessities as gold, copper, and lithium. The country could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," a substance vital to the batteries in most mobile electronics, according to a Defense Department memo.

The minerals find, if substantiated, would could eventually propel Afghanistan to the front rank of mining nations. Ironically, although it could transform the country's economy, it will also feed political instability. Currently, the Taliban funds itself from the opium trade. The group will certainly covet an even better revenue source that will command cooperation from other countries. After all, if you're in control of resources with global importance, many nations -- and companies -- will feel compelled to acknowledge you if only to preserve the ability to close deals.

With that level of incentive, the Taliban will naturally be interested in extending its fight for control of more parts of the nation. Heck, there's already corruption within the Afghan government over mining access:

The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan's minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.
Even if the Taliban doesn't lunge at this opportunity -- unlikely though it seems -- there will be tension among political parties and between a central government and tribal leaders who control areas with mineral wealth.

North Korea may not be rich in minerals, but while you weren't looking it's been emerging as a new IT outsourcing location, highly price competitive and focused on niche growth areas like mobile apps. Its important is an industry that has become like an nomadic economic tribe, moving from one country to another to find the next bit of possible labor arbitrage. However, U.S. law prevents American companies from using services there. Most of the world does not have such restrictions, and so high tech businesses here find themselves at a disadvantage largely because of geopolitics.

Given high tech's resistance to regulation and restriction, shifting gears will be difficult. But over the next ten years, tech companies will have to keep watch on political upheaval among important sources of materials and products, lobby governments, and find ways to navigate the often treacherous waters of a world often distracted by circumstances and other interests.

Image: Flickr user isafmedia, CC 2.0. Modification, Erik Sherman

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.