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New Internet Regulations Provide Window into N. Korea

As of this week, foreigners living in and visiting North Korea can access Twitter, Facebook, and other social media on their mobile phones, providing what could be an unprecedented, real-time view of the notoriously isolated country.

A slow but steady stream of tweets and Instagram photos have already emerged since the mobile service provider Koryolink unveiled its apparently uncensored 3G network, setting up a rare direct connection with a country that remains a mystery to most outsiders.

The move came just weeks after North Korea unexpectedly announced it would allow foreigners to bring their own mobile phones into the country, after having previously required them to be left at customs upon crossing the border.

The changes represent rare reforms in what is considered the most closed country in the world. Some analysts say it provides at least a glimmer of hope that the country's new leader Kim Jong Un is open to gradually relaxing censorship.

But the expensive new mobile Internet service will only be available for the relatively small number of foreigners in North Korea, most of whom are constantly accompanied by government minders and only have access to pre-approved areas.

Could Change Perception of North Koreans

Much of the social media content that has surfaced so far has been ordinary. Reporters for the Associated Press, the first Western news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang, have posted photos depicting everyday life, including candid snapshots of locals playing billiards, fixing lunch, or heading to work in the capital.

Though mundane, analysts say the images could provide a more candid look at an extremely isolated North Korea population that is portrayed by state media as having an unwavering, cult-like devotion to the country's autocratic leaders.

"In my mind, one fairly positive thing that is going to happen is that people are going to see it as less of a freak show," says Gareth Johnson, manager and founder of Young Pioneer Tours, which regularly takes foreign visitors to North Korea. "I think people will start seeing Koreans a bit more like humans, which is a good thing, because they are humans."

A Sign of Things to Come?

Johnson, who has not yet used the Internet service, is optimistic that the move could signal further reforms, something many analysts had all but given up on following North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests. "I think you're going to see a gradual loosening up of things, just by necessity. Once you've let the genie out of the bottle, it's hard to put it back in," he said.

That view is shared cautiously by North Korea technology expert Martyn Williams. Even though he acknowledges the move does little to benefit North Koreans at the moment, he says the development could represent "one of those little cracks in the wall that surrounds North Korea, that eventually lets more information come in."

"If you look around the world, every time that new technology is adopted, especially in authoritarian countries, you'll be able to see that it was another nail in the coffin of censorship, another crack in the wall, so to speak," says Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech blog.

Williams says it could eventually be "something of a big deal," particularly if any of the Internet-enabled phones end up in the hands of North Koreans. But he says Pyongyang will be working hard to ensure that does not happen, likely by registering and tightly monitoring all Internet-enabled Koryolink SIM cards.

And, he says, North Korea would not hesitate to shut down the service if it ever posed a threat to its rule.

Impact of Reporting from North Korea

The new data service could also impact the way foreign journalists cover North Korea. According to Williams, having an Internet connection on a camera-equipped mobile phone means journalists can get around the restrictions posed by pesky government minders.

"It gives reporters the ability to take a picture and to send the picture immediately [to the Internet]," he says. "Even if someone says that you can't take that picture or that you have to delete it, you can say 'I'm sorry, it's already sent.' Or you can delete it, and it's already gone."

David Slatter, a Seoul-based writer for the website, admits that the new service may give reporters the ability to provide a more "uncut side" of North Korea. But he says its impact will be limited and the the fascination may wear off.

"I personally question how useful it will be in terms of North Korean reporting. At the moment, it seems very interesting. But in a few months, I do question how much these photos will really be covered if we just have the same handful of people inside Pyongyang tweeting about their lunch," says Slatter.

Service Will be Costly

Another factor that could limit the usefulness of the 3G service is its hefty price. According to an article in China's official Xinhua news agency, the Koryolink SIM card will cost $200. In addition, data will cost $200 for a modest 2 gigabytes.

Those prices could mean that even well-salaried foreigners working in and visiting North Korea may not be able to afford the service. Gareth Johnson, the tour manager, estimates that only around five percent of his customers will use the data plan.

"I don't think a lot will [use the service], but I think enough will," he says. "We've already had one customer approach us about his next trip, and he's like, 'Yep, make sure I get one, I want to be blogging now and be doing Instagram and Facebook.'"

Koryolink, a joint Egyptian-North Korean venture, stands to make "not an insignificant amount of money" from the service, according to Slatter, who says financial gain may have been a motivating factor.

But still, he calls the move surprising. "That someone will get photos they don't want them to see or that foreigners could leave these phones around or that technology could leak through to the North Koreans one way or another are quite a big risks," he says.

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