News / Asia

N. Korea Cuts 3G Mobile Web Access for Foreign Visitors

Foreigners speak with sales person about mobile phone service at Pyongyang Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. (File photo).
Foreigners speak with sales person about mobile phone service at Pyongyang Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. (File photo).
Groups that organize trips to North Korea say the country is no longer offering mobile Internet to foreign visitors, just weeks after it unveiled a new 3G service that promised an unprecedented look into the notoriously closed state.

The apparently uncensored Internet service was introduced last month, setting off a flurry of Instagram photos and Twitter posts. The move offered a rare glimpse into a country that does not allow its own citizens to access the web.

Koryo Tours, a group that specializes in trips to North Korea, says it was told by authorities in Pyongyang that 3G access is no longer available for visitors.

"About two weeks ago, I got an email from my contact at Koryolink, which is the mobile phone company there. They said that the 3G still exists, but just not for tourists," says Hannah Barraclough, a tourism manager at the Beijing-based group.

"It's still possible for foreign residents in Pyongyang to access, but not for foreign tourists who visit," added Barraclough, who said no reason was given for the termination.

Too risky for Pyongyang?

International tourists are no longer able to purchase the sim cards necessary to access the service, according to Gareth Johnson, who runs Young Pioneer Tours, and just returned Thursday from a trip to North Korea. He says this is likely because Pyongyang became uncomfortable with what foreigners were posting.

"I don't know this for sure, but I can pretty much guarantee that pretty much the first tourist that went in there using his phone with 3G was on Twitter or something and was posting photos that he shouldn't have been posting," says Johnson, adding that he did not know of any specific instance that may have angered Pyongyang.

The photos that emerged from North Korea appeared to be relatively mundane, as most foreigners are only given access to pre-approved areas and are often accompanied by government minders.

But many observers said it was still surprising that Pyongyang had allowed foreigners to post real-time photos of the country at all. Some viewed it as a possible sign that Pyongyang was open to reducing censorship.

'Nervous' about contact with outside

It is difficult to tell why Pyongyang would go back so quickly on its decision, says Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert at Leeds University. But he says North Korea has made similar moves in the past.

"What comes to mind is when [North Korea] first had mobile phones several years ago, and then after several months they cancelled it," he says. "Obviously North Korea is very nervous about all manner of connectivity with the outside world. And when they do put a toe in the water, they are careful, and they sometimes retract the toe."

North Korea eventually did allow mobile phones back into the country. There are now an estimated 1.8 million North Koreans who use Koryolink, the only mobile service there.

Earlier this year, North Korea also announced that foreigners could bring their own mobile phones into the country, after having previously required them to be left at customs upon crossing the border. Both Young Pioneer Tours and Koryo Tours confirm this policy is still in place.

But it is not clear if, or when, Pyongyang will decide to reinstate the mobile Internet service for foreign visitors. Gareth Johnson, with Young Pioneer Tours, says many of his customers hope they do so soon.

"It's a shame. I've got a group going in in two days, and one of the guys, an American guy, was planning to blog throughout his trip there. So I think people are disappointed," he says.

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