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Cell Phone Proliferation No Threat to North Korean Regime


FILE - A North Korean defector living in South Korea uses her mobile phone during an interview at her office in Seoul.

FILE - A North Korean defector living in South Korea uses her mobile phone during an interview at her office in Seoul.

The number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea doubled to more than two million last year, but a "Korean Spring" appears unlikely anytime soon.

Koryolink, a joint venture between the state-owned Korea Post and the Egyptian company Orascom, has passed two million subscribers in a country of about 24 million people. The company released the figures last May, but has declined to update the number since then.

Although there is growing testimony by defectors and foreign visitors about the boom in cell phone use in North Korea, Koryolink’s reported two million subscribers is controversial.

North Korea experts in Seoul say the number may be overstated because of Koryolink’s complicated rate plans or because a growing number of heavy users, such as traders, have started to use more than one phone to save money.

But even with the exact number in dispute, it is clear that cell phone usage is growing quickly in North Korea and becoming an important part of life in the reclusive and impoverished state.

Conspicuous consumption

North Korean defectors tell VOA that many go out of their way to purchase mobile phones, selling hard-earned crops or housewares. Cell phones have become status symbols, signs of prosperity, and one of the most noticeable examples of conspicuous consumption in North Korea.

A man from Chongjin who defected in December 2012 said "cell [phones] have become so popular that a young man without a cell phone is not treated well and could not even find a girlfriend."

In the reclusive state, mobile phones are primarily used for entertainment purposes. Think tablet computers - without the Internet.

Cell phone users in the North use the handset to take pictures, watch videos and play games. North Koreans often use Chinese-made printers to print out photos taken with their mobile phones,

Defectors explained calls were usually reserved for emergencies, to avoid expensive top-up fees. The basic plan comes with just 200 minutes of calling and 20 text messages.

But it rarely matters how often you use a mobile phone, according to defectors. What’s important is that you have one to show.

Maintaining control

While increased access to information often leads to the public’s demand for democracy and civil society, such as the "Arab Spring" protests in the Middle East, North Koreans seem reluctant to use them to seek political reform.

There are no signs that North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world. On the contrary, Pyongyang appears to be using the wide distribution of mobile phones to maintain and solidify its stability.

One defector explained, “It is stupid to criticize the regime on the cell phone, which does more harm than good, when the call rate is exorbitant.”

It isn’t just the money factor, though, that is stopping cell phone users from actually using the handsets for communication. Authorities monitor all text messages, along with location data in real-time. Voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years according to a former North Korean security agent. Also, there are no international calls allowed, and Internet access is banned for all but the ruling elite.

He told VOA that security guards often stop and question cell phone users on the street to search for any “politically inappropriate” content on their phones, especially South Korean soap dramas. An officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion.

When an increasing number of subscribers learned about the Bluetooth technology for exchanging data, the authorities ordered cell phone users to return their handsets to Koryolink shops to disable that function.

The North Korean regime has managed the pace and scale of mobile service in a careful and measured way to ensure it is not used to challenge the state's authority.

Alternative uses

But even though the mobile devices are not being used to call for political reform, some have found ways to use the phones for reasons not planned by the government.

Black market entrepreneurs can exchange market information using mobile phones, including prices and exchange rates. The new mobile network has enabled traders to respond promptly to price differences around the country, which has contributed to price stabilization. This in turn supports the regime’s efforts to jump-start the economy.

Despite the North Korean government’s success at suppressing the flow of information through the mobile phone network, the network could potentially widen loopholes for information to flow to and from the reclusive state.

For example, amateur reporters can record data on their cell phone memory card and transfer it to illegal Chinese cell phones to convey the information to foreign media outlets. Rimjin-gang, a Japan-based magazine featuring news and information from undercover North Korean reporters, says it has used this method to get hidden camera video out of the country.

South Korean IT experts who did not want to be named for fear of endangering their North Korean contacts, say another outlet for information leaks is through remittance brokers. If they find opportunities for profit, they could figure out creative ways to make international calls while circumventing technical barriers.

While cell phones seem to pose little threat to the government in Pyongyang in the near term, it is unknown if the North Korean leadership can continue to prevent the free flow of information over the long run.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.
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    Jee Abbey Lee

    Jee Abbey Lee is a veteran broadcast journalist with more than 10 years of experience in TV, radio, and the web. She serves as Voice of America's social media correspondent and is an expert of millennial lifestyle. 

    Lee received her graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to joining VOA, she worked at the Seoul bureau of CNN Travel and served as the chief Bank of Korea correspondent for Arirang TV. 

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