News / Asia

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.
Jee Abbey LeeYonho Kim
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.

You May Like

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
March 15, 2014 10:14 AM
Yes, I agree what this report wants to say, North Korean people will and must finally succeed in getting all informations from all around the world. Intelligence is what all people want to get and can not help spilling out into the pubric through any obstacles by any authorities.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid