North Korea will soon allow foreign visitors access to the internet via the nation’s Koryolink 3G service, according to reports from the Associated Press Pyongyang bureau. The Egyptian firm that built North Korea’s cell tower infrastructure, Orascom Telecom, reportedly told foreign residents in Pyongyang that internet service would launch no later than March 1.
The news comes just weeks after NK NEWS exclusively revealed that the KoryoLink network had passed new measures that would allow foreigners to use their cellphones for the first time during visits to North Korea. The move is a logical next step for KoryoLink, a joint venture company that has been developing its 3G internet-compatible cell infrastructure in North Korea for over four years now.
But despite the news, AP report that local citizens will still not be able to access the internet or even make phone calls to foreign countries using their cellphones. As a result, North Korea’s nearly two million cellphone subscribers will see no immediate advantage and continue to endure an information blockade that has long been a cause of consternation from media watchdogs and human rights activists across the world.
Open Radio for North Korea Manager of International Affairs Eunkyoung Kwon told NK NEWS
I think this policy is just a simple trick to earn foreign currency. Pyongyang knows it is inevitable that tourists will upload pictures and blogs after their visits, so the only difference with this move is that it just changes when visitors can release this information. By allowing foreigners to use the internet during their trips they can correspondingly attract more tourists, but for the people the internet remains banned.
Despite the immediate lack of access for local people, NK NEWS Director Chad O’Carroll explained that the development could nevertheless have broader reaching effects in the long run.
Everything has to start somewhere, so this move should be welcomed. The more internet capable phones there are in North Korea, the faster news and information from the outside world can travel. Initially it may only be a handful of long-term residents and voyeuristic tourists that have access, but who knows, this development could pave the way for at least North Korean internet access in the short to medium term.
With Koryolink’s 3G network coverage reported to include 13.8% of North Korean territory and 92.9% of population areas, it seems that visitors should soon be able to enjoy internet access throughout most of the commonly visited parts of the nation.
From AP’s initial report it was not yet clear if there would be any restrictions in use, especially regarding visits to websites hosted in South Korea. Prices for the new internet service have not been published yet, though AP reported that users will be required to purchase an additional mobile data plan to take advantage of the new service.
Currently foreigners are required to purchase a 3G simcard for 50 Euros upon arrival in North Korea and calls cost any where between 0.38 – 1.43 Euro per minute. Visitors must fill out a form like the one pictured when arriving in North Korea.
Until just a few weeks ago, foreigners could not bring cell phones into North Korea and could only access foreign news and information through a handful of foreign TV news networks that broadcast in hotels in the capital city.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea in January and told his North Korean hosts that increasing internet access would be critical to the country’s economic development. However, Orascom spokespersons recently said that developments in cellphone access for foreigners were unrelated to the Google trip.
North Korea’s leadership has for decades cemented rule by maintaining an iron grip on information entering and exiting the country.