While North Korea has launched an unprecedented multi-agency campaign to crack down on illegal cell phones along the country’s border with China, a source in North Hamgyong province said that reliance on the illegal phones was so widespread that it would be difficult to eliminate the practice.
“No matter how tough the crackdown measures get, there is a limit,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You cannot watch the entire border area to catch a single cell phone user.”
The number of illegal Chinese phones used in North Korea –where the official cell phone network has over a million subscribers– is unknown, but sources from the country say they are widely used in border towns, particularly by cross-border traders who rely on them to do business in China.
Some border residents have made a business of lending illegal cell phones to others to make calls to friends or relatives in China, South, Korea, Japan, and other countries.
North Korea’s official domestic mobile phone service was first launched in the capital Pyongyang in 2002, but banned two years later after a phone was used to trigger a deadly explosion at a northern train station.
Since launching a 3G cell phone service in a surprise deal with Egyptian company Orascom in 2008, the official network – which allows only handsets provided by North Korea’s Koryolink – has expanded coverage to about one fifth of the country’s territory.