Today in North Korea there are around 1.5 million mobile phone users, mainly concentrated in the capital city of Pyongyang. These phones can do nearly as much as you might an expect of an early smartphone from around 2008: apart having no internet access, they can take pictures, play music and, of course, make calls. However, these are not the functions for which some North Koreans are reportedly falling in love with cellphones. This is because mobile phones in North Korea serve a far more brilliant purpose: they are the most reliable source of light in a dark world.
Kim Sung-man is from Pyongyang and left North Korea in 2012. He recently explained,
The most common thing after water is a power cut. So a torch is a necessary thing in North Korea. If you don’t have one, you can’t do anything after sunset. Ever since mobile phones were introduced, people have been carrying them instead of lugging around a separate torch. Besides, batteries are hard to obtain, and ordinary torches are only used when absolutely necessary. Phones are not only more compact, but can be recharged and don’t require new batteries.
In Pyongyang, power cuts can often occur in the subway system. With the subway system having been built 100 meters underground in order to be used as a bomb shelter in the event of war, it turns pitch dark during a power cut. As such, it is said that the most popular passengers are the ones who get their mobile phones out. “You don’t take out a torch anymore – that’s considered old fashioned”, explained Sung-man.
Perhaps some North Koreans like to see the primary function of mobile phones as torches because they don’t see the other functions of a phone as attractive or useful as foreigners might. Sung-man finishes by saying, “Calls are not cheap, and there’s not much good news to share anyway.” Yet the bright light of the smartphone screen is different: “It is a mark of your life being better than others without a phone, as well as a symbol of North Korea’s future prosperity.”
This tangible desire for light is reminiscent of the effort made to illuminate newly built luxury apartments in the Mansudae area of Pyongyang, pictured above. The outside lights are blinding neon, which are obviously not for the benefit of its residents, but rather for those looking up to the residents. What little electricity there exists in North Korea is used for show rather than practical illumination. This is why when modern cell phone technology arrives in North Korea closely monitored society, it is perceived by some North Koreans first as a torch and a phone second.
With credits to New Focus International.