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ICT in N. Korea ②

2019-01-31

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Recently, many Pyongyang residents have been seen looking at and talking on mobile phones. In today’s installment of Inside North Korea, we’ll learn about the proliferation of mobile phones in North Korea and how they are typically used. Let’s hear from Cha Moon-seok, professor at the Institute for Unification Education. 


The growth in the number of mobile phone users in North Korea is surprising. Mobile phones were first introduced in the communist country in 2008, when a mobile service in the North was offered by Koryolink, the North’s official cellular network. It is a joint venture between Egyptian telecom company Orascom and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation. 


According to the International Telecommunication Union, the number of subscribers to Koryolink was about 2.8 million in 2014 and the number of mobile phones in use in North Korea was estimated at 5.8 million in 2018. Recently, China’s ZTE has reportedly built a telecommunications network along with equipment exclusive to North Korea.


About 20 mobile phone models have been released under different brands, including “Ryusong,” “Pyongyang” and “Arirang.” Components of those phones are mostly imported from China and assembled in North Korea. 


When Orscam set up North Korea’s first cell phone network in 2008, there were only about 1,600 subscribers nationwide. But this figure had jumped to one million by February 2012 and two million by May 2013.


During a parliamentary committee session last November, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said that about six million mobile phones were in use in North Korea. That represents 24 percent of the nation’s population of 25 million. 


Various smartphone brands and models, including “Pyongyang” and “Jindallae,” have appeared on the market in recent years. 


The “Pyongyang” brand, for example, comes in a broad range of prices depending on models, from 250 dollars to 690 dollars a unit. The price of the most expensive one is equivalent to that of 1,250 kilograms of rice. For low-end models, the monthly minimum is 850 won and the cell phone rate is 10.2 won for every minute of talk time. High-end models charge a 2,250 won monthly basic rate and 6.8 won for each minute of talk time.


In North Korea, cell phone prices typically range from 100 to 200 US dollars, with smartphones up to ten times than regular cell phones. On the whole, mobile phones are pretty expensive, given that North Korean workers earn an average of about 80 dollars per month. 


However, usage fees are relatively low. Users get 200 minutes of voice calling time and are allowed to send 200 text messages every month for the equivalent of about 1 dollar and 20 cents. Going over this limit, however, can incur huge fees of 10-thousand won per 100 minutes. For this reason, cell phone use in North Korea is stratified by class.


Not too long ago, only the middle and upper classes Pyongyang used mobile phones. But these days, the user base has expanded much more. Merchants doing business in marketplaces and even young people looking for entertainment are using mobile phones. Still, cell phones are costly considering average wages in North Koreans. It is hard to say that mobile phones are widely used among the general public. 


Many North Koreans, especially in non-urban areas, do not have mobile phones or even a telecommunications infrastructure available to them.


But it is reported that 50 to 70 percent of people in North Korea’s large cities, including Pyongyang, are cell phone subscribers. In particular, the elites, businesspeople, and younger generations regard cell phones as a must-have in their daily lives. Professor Cha explains.


In North Korea, mobiles phones are often used for business purposes. For merchants, cell phones are a practical means of getting information about demand and supply in real time. Thanks to cell phones, markets have spread and economic activity is becoming more dynamic in North Korea. Through the spread of other mobile devices like tablet PCs, the North Korean people are consuming various forms of entertainment such as TV dramas, movies and music. These changes in their economic and cultural lives will, in turn, promote the development of mobile technology even further.


Businesspeople in North Korea are said to check foreign exchange rates through their smartphones, as the US dollar and Chinese yuan are often used when trading, buying, and selling goods. 


North Koreans can even transfer money using their smartphones. In a country where banks do not function properly, smartphones perform the role of private financing when sending and receiving money. Mobile users buy a card called Ullim and send money to others by registering the card to an app on their smartphone.

These days, it is even common to see young North Koreans playing games on their phones and taking selfies with them. 


Indeed, smartphones are used in a variety of ways. Scholars use them to access information and materials like textbooks, while recipe and card game apps are popular for stay at home mothers. Students are said to use apps to study English and Mandarin Chinese. 


There’s also a navigation app called “Traveling Companion 1.0” that allows users to locate facilities and navigate their way around Pyongyang, and a photo editing app called “Spring Scent 1.0.” 


Nevertheless, North Korea’s mobile app eco-system is still quite restricted. 


Smartphone users in North Korea can only connect to the country’s internal, state-run intranet. The internet as we know it outside North Korea is inaccessible, with only a select few state-run entities granted access.


North Korean authorities strictly block the Internet to prevent outside information from flowing in to the country. But a foreigner-only service on Koryolink is connected with the internet inside North Korea. So, visitors can enjoy internet access in the North if they use a smartphone with an appropriate SIM card.


To use a mobile phone, North Koreans should first register with a local government office and get permission to purchase a device. The phones have several limitations however. 


As Professor Cha mentions, North Koreans cannot access the global internet from their mobile devices. Although smartphone users have connection to a North Korean intranet, they have to pay for apps at an offline location and cannot download them directly. 

Furthermore, smartphones in North Korea have no Bluetooth functionality, and it is impossible to turn on the phone if another memory card other than the original SIM card is inserted.


North Korea may be similar in some ways to other developing countries in terms of mobile phone usage habits and technology, but nowhere does the state so tightly control and monitor the flow of outside information. For this reason, Professor Cha says that while mobile phones are indeed changing the lives of North Korean people, they will not lead to any changes in the regime itself. 


Thanks to information and communications technology or ICT, North Korean society is expected to become more open and diverse. Even so, I don’t think it will bring about a fundamental change in the nation’s political system. It isn’t likely, either, that the spread of information will prompt the regime to collapse. On the contrary, the North Korean leadership may use ICT development to further strengthen its grip on the people. 


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stresses the need to overcome his country’s less developed manufacturing industry by invigorating the knowledge-based economy through ICT investment and development. To this end, reform and openness is essential. 


While mobile phones have spread fast in North Korea, information is still tightly controlled. In line with a growing number of mobile phone users, it remains to be seen if the North Korean people will be given wider access to the outside world. 

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