EXCLUSIVE: Foreigners Now Permitted To Carry Mobile Phones In North Korea

Change in national policy comes just days after Google chairman's visit
January 19th, 2013

UPDATE 1/20/13: Xinhua News add that for fifty euros, foreigners can now purchase a KoryoLink SIM card and make calls while in North Korea. Orascom Telecom also said that the new rules have nothing to do with the Google trip and are actually the result of recent negotiations.

NK NEWS can exclusively reveal that only days after Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit to North Korea, tourists may now bring cell phones into the country without having them confiscated by immigration officials at the border.

Up until now, bringing mobile phones into North Korea has been strictly forbidden, with all handsets confiscated at customs and only returned on exit. Despite this new development, tourists are currently neither able to roam on North Korea’s domestic KoryoLink network nor purchase local SIM cards, meaning that despite being allowed to carry their handsets, they are unusable

The news that cellphones can be legally brought into North Korea comes just days after Google’s Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s returned from a high profile trip to North Korea. At that time, there had been no reporting on what had happened to the delegation’s cell phones upon entry to the DPRK. It is possible that they may have been the first group to benefit from the new policy. Either way, coming so soon after the Google trip, it can be read as a signal of North Korea’s possible softening of its stance toward communication technology, and its increased interest in understanding the ways it can engage with advancements in the field.

According to Richie Fenner, a tour manager at China based Young Pioneer Tours who reported the news today, explained that GPS enabled devices are allowed in the country. He told us:

When we were coming in on the train, they asked us to show us our phones. The customs official asked if the first one he looked at had GPS, which it didn’t, so he handed it back. But then with the iPhones and other modern phones when we told them they had GPS, he just handed them back and gestured that we just put them in our bag.

Thinking that the phones might just be sealed upon the group’s arrival to Pyongyang, Fenner explained that to his surprise the local guides explained a new policy meant that foreigners can now keep their cell phones in their possession. But that didn’t mean they could be used. Fenner explained, “Wthout a North Korean sim card, the phones are useless. I asked if we could get North Korean SIM cards and our guide said that it might be possible in the future”.

American tourist Sato Shi who joined the tour group by plane (U.S. citizens may not take the train) confirmed that the policy has been applied to the airport, too. “When we went to the customs they were checking our bags, saw my cellphone and then just gave it back to me and said “Hey, just keep it with you”.

Smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy are a rare commodity in North Korea. Fenner explained that his North Korean colleagues were very interested in trying them and playing games throughout the tour. “It’s all very new for them, I don’t think they’ve seen iPhones and Smartphones before”.

Given the lack of SIM cards and network access, the Young Pioneer tour group explained they could only really use their phones to take photos, play games, and use as an alarm. Young Pioneers today explained on their website that the news shows North Korea’s intent to “make tourism easier and a larger part of the economy”. 

North Korea’s Korylink network is run by Egyptian firm Orascom Telecom and currently has 1.5 million subscribers. At present subscribers are not allowed to talk to foreigners using their devices either in-country or out of country, so it remains uncertain if tourists will be provided full access any time soon.

Picture: Royalty Free Archives

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.