The number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea doubled to more than two million last year. Koryolink, a joint venture between the state-ownedKorea Post and the Egyptian company Orascom, has passed two million subscribers in a country of about 24 million people.
North Korean defectors tell VOA that many go out of their way to purchase mobile phones, selling hard-earned crops or housewares. Cell phones have become status symbols, signs of prosperity, and one of the most noticeable examples of conspicuous consumption in North Korea. A man from Chongjin who defected in December 2012 said “cell [phones] have become so popular that a young man without a cell phone is not treated well and could not even find a girlfriend.”
In the reclusive state, mobile phones are primarily used for entertainment purposes. Think tablet computers – without the Internet. Cell phone users use the handset to take pictures, watch videos and play games. North Koreans often use Chinese-made printers to print out photos taken with their mobile phones,
Defectors explained calls were usually reserved for emergencies, to avoid expensive top-up fees. A basic plan comes with just 200 minutes of calling and 20 text messages.
There are no signs that North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world. On the contrary, Pyongyang appears to be using the wide distribution of mobile phones to maintain and solidify its stability. One defector explained, “It is stupid to criticize the regime on the cell phone, which does more harm than good, when the call rate is exorbitant.”
It isn’t just the money factor, though, that is stopping cell phone users from actually using the handsets for communication. Authorities monitor all text messages, along with location data in real-time. Voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years according to a former North Korean security agent. Also, there are no international calls allowed, and Internet access is banned for all but the ruling elite.
He told VOA that security guards often stop and question cell phone users on the street to search for any “politically inappropriate” content on their phones, especially South Korean soap dramas. An officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion.
Despite the North Korean government’s success at suppressing the flow of information through the mobile phone network, the network could potentially widen loopholes for information to flow to and from the reclusive state. For example, amateur reporters can record data on their cell phone memory card and transfer it to illegal Chinese cell phones to convey the information to foreign media outlets. Rimjin-gang, a Japan-based magazine featuring news and information from undercover North Korean reporters, says it has used this method to get hidden camera video out of the country.