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Tia Han is an NK News contributor based in Seoul, South Korea.
2018 marks the tenth year that cellphones have been legally available in North Korea. The number of users has been growing significantly since then, but overall use remains low: according to the country’s state-run Sogwang outlet in January, more than 3.5 million – out of a population of 25 million – have mobile subscriptions.
“We started providing the 3G service in December 2008, so this year marks the 10th year of the service,” Han Jong Nye, from the Arirang Information and Technology Center in Future Scientist Street in Pyongyang, was quoted as having said in Sogwang in January. “The demand for mobile phones is growing larger and larger.”
Though the exact subscription number remains a subject of debate, some experts believe that the number of mobile subscription has increased close to 5 million, according to research conducted by the North-East Asia Community ICT Forum, with approximately 40% of the population using smartphones.
“People are attracted by the new and various features of our smartphones such as text messages, address book, and voice recognition as well as design and color,” Han said in the Sogwang report.
“Demand for mobile phones is growing larger and larger.”
“Since we began to offer 3G service, countless programs have been developed and help people’s learning and life in many ways through applications such as cooking apps, how to live long or how to treat illness. Also, there are games that people can play regardless of their age or gender.”
North Korean mobile users cannot access the worldwide internet, of course: use is limited to the country’s state-run intranet.
Reports suggest various kinds of applications are now accessible for mobile users – from games to shopping – several state-run North Korean outlets have reported on their recent technological development, often with a great deal of emphasis on their local origins.
State media suggests that North Koreans are playing games, reading books, listening to music, doing karaoke, learning to cook, and even increasing crop output on their smartphones. One of the most popular apps is “My Companion,” which can be described as a combination of Netflix and an ebook reader.
A recent defector from Hoeryong – in the country’s north-west – said that he mainly used his smartphone to play games.
“I used a smartphone for a short period of time before I left. I mostly used it to play games like motorcycle racing [a game called from Mt. Paektu to Mt. Hanna] and talk on the phone,” Choi Sung Jin, who left the DPRK in 2017, told NK News.
“If I wanted to download a new game, I would ask the person who has the program and copy the program from laptop to smartphone, just like copying and pasting a movie to a memory card.”
North Koreans are also using their phones for business: checking currency rates and transferring money, reported South Korea’s MTN in June.
An app called Ullim makes it possible for users to transfer money to other mobile users: users purchase a gift card, add funds, then register the card to the app to send the money through the receiver’s phone number.
Various kinds of applications are now accessible for mobile users – from games to shopping
North Korea has three different mobile operators: Koryolink, Kangsong Net, and Byol.
Koryolink, a joint venture between the Egyptian company Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding (OTMT) and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC) with ownership of 75% and 25%, respectively, was the first cellular carrier in North Korea.
While Koryolink provides services to both foreign visitors and locals, Kangsong Net and Byol are accessible to locals only.
Since the majority of smartphone users do not have an access to the internet, according to one expert, users have to go to a technology service center where technicians install apps to their cell phone.
“Most mobile users do not have data service even if they buy a smartphone, so they have to be happy with pre-loaded apps such as games and dictionaries,” Yonho Kim, a non-resident fellow at Korea Economic Institute, told NK News.
“There is no internet based app store where you can download apps you want, instead they have to go to communication centers to download applications that are permitted by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.”
“The app store is an actual physical store”
This account is confirmed by NK News‘s reporting: March saw state media claim that the country’s Samhung IT Exchange Company was selling products and services through “700 branches and agencies.”
It was not the first, with the Arirang company in December also reported to be selling its products at a special shop.
“The app store is an actual physical store,” a source said at the time. “I heard they’ve upped security, so you can’t share the software around easily anymore.”
Connections may be speeding up, too: Sogwang earlier in the year reported that a wifi service is being experimented in Ryomyong Street and the Future Scientist Street – claims that experts said should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“A few individuals might have access to wifi for the needs of institutions only,” said Kim. “Wifi for the general mobile users, however, is more likely to be intranet based one, which means the range of application is very limited technically.”
“There are reports of a slow and continual expansion of what’s available”
Nat Kretchun, Deputy Director at the Open Technology Fund, agreed.
“As far as intranet connectivity, a claim of ‘wifi’ could mean several things,” he said. “For instance, someone using a tablet that gets a version of intranet wirelessly through the cellular system might colloquially refer to that as wifi (particularly if they have international exposure and thus have some familiarity with that term).”
Also possible, he added, was that “wireless access to the intranet could be set up in some locations.”
“It wouldn’t be technically hard.”
Despite all the progress, however, North Korea still lags years behind its southern neighbor, which leads the world in smartphone ownership (94 percent).
And although the number of mobile users is growing, a small fraction of the North Korean population enjoys a mobile connection and only half of the country is reported to own a phone.
North Korean phones do not come cheap: costing as high as $800, a huge price in a country with a GDP per capita of $1800.
At such high prices, too, staying connected is likely a preserve of the country’s most wealthy: the donju class that, by and large, resides in the big cities.
“The content that is accessible through the intranet is obviously still extremely limited by international comparison, but there are reports of a slow and continual expansion of what’s available,” Kretchun said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham