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

Afghan Government: Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Died in 2013

President Ashraf Ghani's office confirms reclusive Taliban leader died in 2013, but Taliban itself claim Omar is still alive More

Erdogan in China Amid Tensions on Uighurs, Missile System

Turkey's president has criticized China's heavy-handed policies toward Uighurs in violence-plagued Xinjiang region, where China says it is fighting foreign-backed separatists More

Critics: China’s President Using Law to Tighten Grip on Power

President Xi, who has stressed importance of 'rule of law' and law-based governance, has exerted increasingly tighter grip over society since coming to office 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.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs