2018 marks the tenth year that cellphones have been legally available in North Korea, but overall use remains low: according to the country’s state-run Sogwang outlet in January, more than 3.5 million – out of a population of 25 million – have mobile subscriptions.
Some experts believe that the number of mobile subscription has increased closer to 5 million, with approximately 40% of the population using smartphones.
North Korean mobile users cannot access the worldwide internet: use is limited to the country’s state-run intranet. Since the majority of smartphone users do not have access to the internet, according to one expert, users have to go to a technology service center where technicians install apps to their cell phone.
State media suggests that North Koreans are playing games, reading books, listening to music, doing karaoke, learning to cook, and even increasing crop output on smartphones. One of the most popular apps is “My Companion,” which can be described as a combination of Netflix and an ebook reader.
Choi Sung Jin, who defected from the DPRK in 2017, from Hoeryong – in the country’s north-west – said that he mainly used his smartphone to play games.
But some North Koreans are also using their phones for business: checking currency rates and transferring money, reported South Korea’s MTN in June. An app makes it possible for users to transfer money to other mobile users: users purchase a gift card, add funds, then register the card to the app to send the money through the receiver’s phone number. Amazon-style e-commerce is another rising smartphone feature in North Korea.
Despite all the progress, however, North Korea still lags years behind its southern neighbor, which leads the world in smartphone ownership (94 percent). North Korean phones do not come cheap: costing as high as $800, a huge price in a country with a GDP per capita of $1800.