North Korean imports of tablet computers increased throughout 2014, from zero last December to more than 4000 units per month in October, according to Chinese customs data.
The figures also confirm that laptop use among North Koreans has increased five-fold since 2009, though appearing to taper off in 2014, with October imports only slightly ahead of those seen over the same period last year.
“This looks in line with what I’d expect. Tablets and laptops have slowly been growing in popularity, it seems,” Martyn Williams, author of the North Korea Tech site told NK News.
Tablet imports – which do not appear in the Chinese data before 2014 – began with just a few hundred units shipped in January, before seeing a sharp increase from June. Though volumes shipped still remain small, with a total import value just below U.S. $1.2 million.
The available data did not include the brand of the tablets, so it is unclear if the shipments are of North Korea’s own “Samjiyon” tablet, which are more likely to be produced in China than domestically.
“The tablet is almost certainly not made in North Korea — the country just doesn’t have the electronics manufacturing capability to design products like tablet computers from the components up,” Williams writes in a feature covering the tablet.
The Chinese Customs figures also point to an increasing trend in laptop use among North Koreans since 2009, with exports growing from $4 million to more than $20 million U.S. over the 5 year period.
Most of the growth occurred between 2010 and 2013 however, with sales appearing to stall in 2014. As of October this year, the value of laptop exports from China was just $2 million above the 2013 levels. This is only a third of change seen between 2012 and 2013, when exports increased by $6 million over the same period.
The numbers also confirm anecdotal evidence of increasing North Korean computer use provided to NK News by defectors earlier this year.
“In the past, people could request (a laptop) from people who came to visit from China, but, now, I heard that you can purchase it from the market,” Lee, a defector said in July.
The tapering off of Chinese exports could be evidence that despite the increase in prevalence, laptops are still not affordable for those outside of Pyongyang’s middle and upper classes.
The average price of the individual laptops and tablets – at $200 and $100 respectively – would also likely put them out of reach for most North Koreans.
“I do know that there are a number of shops in Pyongyang now selling these, as well as fixing them, so it is certainly a common thing amongst the middle class,” Simon Cockerell, general manager of North Korean Tour Company Koryo Tours, told NK News.
DOWN WITH DESKTOPS
Despite being relatively cut off from global technology markets, the Chinese customs data also indicates that North Korean import patterns have followed the larger migration away from desktop computers seen around the world.
Exports of desktops in 2009 were strikingly similar to those of laptops in 2013, though have experienced a steep decline since then, and were valued at just $3 million last year.
The downward trend has continued into 2014 with only 442 units exported in October 2014.
Featured image: Leo Byrne
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