A mobile carrier refers to a company that provides wireless communications service to customers. Major mobile service providers in South Korea are SK Telecom, KT and LG U-Plus. Around the world, there are Verizon and AT&T in the U.S., NTT Docomo in Japan, and Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone Group Plc in Europe, just to name a few. How about North Korea?
Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s telecommunications companies and mobile communications service from Professor Jeong Eun Chan at the National Institute for Unification Education.
People bring their smartphones everywhere, such as streets and restaurants and on public transportation. Indeed, smartphones have become an essential part of modern life. Similarly, mobile phones are regarded as a daily necessity for residents in North Korea.
(North Korean citizen. woman): It’s so fun to use a cell phone, as its functions diversify day after day. Phones have become an indispensable part of our lives.
The number of mobile phones in use in North Korea is about seven million. A mobile phone is described as “hand phone” in the North. The North Korea monitoring website 38 North has identified some one-thousand cellular base stations in North Korea through satellite imagery.
It seems the mobile phone penetration rate of the reclusive North is rising fast. Who started the mobile communication service in the country and when?
North Korea’s first mobile service operator is Northeast Asia Telephone and Telecommunications Company, which was a joint venture between Thailand’s Loxley Pacific and the North’s Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation. In 1998, the company installed 500 mobile phone circuit lines in North Korea’s Rajin-Sonbong area, which is now the Rason Special Economic Zone. It launched North Korea’s first commercial second-generation or 2G mobile service in 2002 to draw 30-thousand subscribers later. But the company did not develop further, as North Korea banned the use of mobile phones in 2004.
Following a massive explosion at Ryongchon railway station in North Korea in 2004, the North Korean authorities prohibited residents from using mobile phones. At the time, rumors spread that the explosion was triggered by a mobile device in an attempt to assassinate then-leader Kim Jong-il.
Four years later, in 2008, a major change took place in the country’s stagnant mobile communication business.
The mobile communications service resumed in North Korea in 2008, when Egyptian telecom company Orascom set up Koryolink, a joint firm with the North’s Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation. Koryolink obtained a 25-year license and exclusive rights for the first four years.
When the exclusivity period of four years ended, a new mobile operator appeared in North Korea.
At the expiration of Koryolink’s exclusive contract, North Korea launched a second mobile carrier called Kang Song Net in 2012. The state-owned operator has provided third-generation or 3G service. The authorities proposed a merger between Koryolink and the new telecom network but the plan fell through.
Koryolink subscribers have to pay for extra minutes in dollars after free minutes, while Kang Song Net allows its subscribers to pay for extra minutes in the local currency. Its sound quality is even better than Koryolink’s. Therefore, many of Koryolink’s subscribers are switching to Kang Song Net.
As North Korea’s mobile communications business hit its stride, the number of subscribers of Koryolink surpassed one million in 2012. The figure reached two million in 2013 and three million in 2015. The growing number of mobile phone users raised the need for a new telecom operator, prompting the authorities to establish one, namely, Kang Song Net.
Koryolink offers a full-fledged 3G service to foreigners and high-ranking North Korean officials. But its subscribers are required to pay for extra minutes in dollars when they go over the minutes allowed under a particular phone plan. Subscribers of Kang Song Net, on the other hand, can use the North Korean won in the same situation. Also, its telecommunication fees are cheaper than Koryolink’s. Little wonder local citizens prefer Kang Song Net. In 2015, another new mobile network operator was created.
North Korea launched a third mobile service provider called Byol in 2015. In the early days, the government-owned company provided wired Internet connections to foreigners residing in Pyongyang. But its 3G mobile service is now used by officials in the party, the government and the military as well as general citizens. The authorities set up the third telecom company, after Kang Song Net, to keep Koryolink in check. While Koryolink offers services both to foreigners and local citizens, Kang Song Net and Byol can only be used by North Korean residents.
With the emergence of Byol, three players compete with one another in North Korea’s mobile communications industry. We can’t help but wonder how advanced their technology is.
Three years after North Korea reintroduced mobile communications service in 2008, Koryolink established 453 base stations nationwide, expanding its network coverage in 14 major cities including Pyongyang, 86 smaller cities and 22 highways. The network covered 13-point-six percent of the country’s territory and 92 percent of the population. It doesn’t mean 92 percent of the population subscribed to the service, but the network was expanded enough to serve that percentage.
When North Korea released the Jindallae(진달래) 3 smartphone in 2017, it boasted the phone’s high technology. It claimed that the new smartphone is second only to South Korea’s Samsung Galaxy 5 and it would be able to catch up with South Korea’s technology in mobile communications and smartphones in just three to four years. However, analysts say that North Korea is still in the stage of 3G coverage.
North Korea has still been using the 3G network since the country first built it in 2008 with the help of Orascom. It shows a contrast to mobile carriers in major countries including the U.S., which are moving to close their 3G services in phases.
But North Korea’s mobile communication industry has developed relatively fast under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule.
It is a determination and will of our party to rapidly develop all sectors and build a people’s paradise by dint of science and technology.
The North Korean leader, who places emphasis on science and technology, has stressed the importance of fourth-generation or 4G and fifth-generation or 5G technology at every opportunity. North Korea included 5G technology research in the list of major tasks for its “frontal breakthrough” drive in 2020.
Our dear leader said that the Arirang handset looks great and it is light and convenient to use because it has various features needed for phone calls and education. He examined the phone’s touch screen and said that the part should be sensitive so people can use it conveniently.
The leader inspected a factory that produces North Korea’s own smartphone brand Arirang. In fact, North Korea has released new smartphones, despite the worsening economic situation stemming from the pandemic-induced border shutdowns.
North Korea has suffered a significant setback in production in recent years, due to the border closures. Nevertheless, the country unveiled at least five new smartphones in 2021 and 2022, such as Madusan(마두산) 217S, Madusan 215, Myohyang(묘향) 901, Sonamu(소나무) 381 and Sonamu 382.
Myohyang is actually a tablet PC brand released by a company called Pyongje(평제), while Sonamu is a TV brand. Television sets were presented to high officials and workers in the late 1970s and the 1980s under this brand. That is, companies like a tablet PC maker and a TV producer have jumped into the smartphone market.
The Madusan 215 smartphone runs on Android 11, while the Madusan 217S, Myohyang 901 and Sonamu 382 run on Android 10. It seems Android 11 is the latest operating system available in the country. Given the current North Korean situation, it’s fair to say that the smartphones adopted relatively recent Android versions.
Since North Korea released its first smartphone Arirang in 2013, it has continued to unveil new products. With smartphones spreading, locals are using a variety of smartphone apps.
Many North Koreans use a navigation app called “My Traveling Companion,” which is like South Korea’s Kakao Map and Naver Map. North Korea’s English-language newspaper the Pyongyang Times reported that “My Traveling Companion 3.1” was the country’s most popular app in 2021 in terms of the number of users. Many also download apps to play football or janggi, which is Korean chess. Some apps allow users to search useful legal information, important legal precedents and regulations that can be put to practical use.
As of 2021, the number of smartphone users in North Korea was estimated at six million. In addition to the popular navigation app, local mobile carriers have provided various other apps including the gaming app “Boy General,” a spinoff of an animation series that is hugely popular among children.
Other popular apps include delivery apps and payment apps that can be used on online markets. But North Korea’s mobile communications have limitations.
North Korean authorities are using the mobile communication service as a means of controlling people. Using the service, the authorities could listen to the phone calls of people. North Korea allows citizens to search or download data through the internal network of “intranet,” and people can get in touch with or communicate with others through mobile phones. But the authorities block people from sharing their thoughts about ideology or politics and keep them from leaking internal information to the outside world. Through wiretapping, North Korea tries to prevent the people from changing their ideological views and to strengthen internal unity instead.
North Korea forces mobile phone users to install the tightly-controlled intranet called Kwangmyong. The North built and operates the national intranet, which looks like the Internet in terms of technology. But the domestic-only network denies access to the outside world. That is, the authorities are using the intranet app to monitor detailed records of the mobile service people use and the phone calls they make.
North Korea’s mobile communication service has developed for years. But the authorities try hard to prevent people from enjoying a free atmosphere while they are using the service. It remains to be seen how North Korea’s mobile communication business may evolve, in the face of a dilemma between the government’s strict control over the service and the freedom of communication that users enjoy.