Business, Economics and Jobs

North Korea more wired than we think


The Immortal Statue of Kim Il Sung monument is seen on April 3, 2011 in Pyongyang, North Korea.


Feng Li

People say North Korean mobile users are mostly sequestered in Pyongyang, and it’s not possible to call outside North Korea.

The description jives with an image of the North as an isolated, mostly impoverished nation.

But new evidence suggests the country is far more wired than we think.

More people are using cell phones in more parts of the country. And not only are sanctions proving largely ineffective in keeping technology out, but the government is also proactively encouraging its use in many parts of the country.

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First, cell phones:

On a week-long trip in June, U.S.-based researchers traveled to Pyongyang and four other cities. They saw people using cell phones in all of the cities, as well as the countryside, according to Korea Insight.

After discussions with Koryo Link, North Korea’s only 3G mobile phone network, which launched in 2008, researchers found that 600,000 people have subscribed as of June. This growth is amazing, especially considering the large costs. The registration and set up fees are nearly $1,000, while the phones cost between $225 and $400.

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Users are all presumably from the upper crust of the Workers’ Party, military officers or government bureaucrats. But still, it is a strong indicator that the middle to wealthy class is alive and well.

Next, internet:

Koryo Link reps said 3G internet service via Apple iPad will be available in the fall, at the government's urging.

Korea Insight says:

This is not the only indication that the government is permitting greater internet access. Kim Il Sung University E-library and Pyongyang University of Science and Technology permit access to the world wide web. Also, in the recently refurbished elite Hyangsan Hotel in the remote Myohyong mountain area, the hotel manager revealed that all of the guest rooms have direct internet access.

What else is going on in North Korea that we don't know about?

As one former Western ambassador to Pyongyang put it: With some searching one can essentially find supplies to cook exotic Italian food, the most obscure camera batteries and even Scotch Whiskey.