Business, Economics and Jobs

North Korea: foreigners allowed cellphones


#182 — North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, accompanied by senior officials of the Workers' Party of Korea and Korean People's Army officials, attends the 15th anniversary memorial service of the country's late President Kim Il-Sung at the Pyongyang gymnasium on July 8, 2009.



North Korea is loosening restrictions on foreign cellphones.

Visitors can now bring their own phones into the country, the Associated Press reported. But if they try to call locals, they're out of luck, as calls between locals and foreigners are still prohibited.

Travel agency Young Pioneer Tours confirmed the news, saying they could indeed bring cellphones into the country.

"This is great news for those who use their phones as a watch, alarm and camera, or just can’t stop playing angry birds,"they posted online, "but of course you still won’t be able to connect to the Koryolink network with your outside phone."

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Previously, nearly all foreigners visiting North Korea were forced to surrender their cellphones at customs, reports GlobalPost senior correspondent for East Asia, Geoffrey Cain.

Foreigners got their phones back when they left, but Wired reported that there was often evidence they had been tampered with.

"It's a security risk, and the government would prefer that contact with the outside world stay limited," Cain said today.

"So the decision to allow tourists to bring their own phones — if true — is big news," he continued.

It could signify that some powerful figure, or some faction within the Korean Workers' Party, is winning a political battle towards reform.

Nobody knows for sure what goes on in the corridors of power in North Korea, but cellphone access could indeed mean that Kim Jong-un is the Swiss-educated reformer some are saying he is.

And, of course, there's the strange timing.

When Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited the Hermit Kingdom in early January, he urged the regime to embrace technology. It's unlikely the incredibly cautious authorities would make a snap decision, but Schmidt is respected in Pyongyang and could have had some sway.

Which isn't to say North Korea is entirely in the dark when it comes to cellphones and the internet.

For a nation in such a rut of poverty, the numbers aren't so bad: Orascom, an Egyptian company that helps run the North Korean mobile service, reports having more than 1 million subscribers in a country of 23 million people.

So it's not like foreigners are bringing anything new to Pyongyang.

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from Seoul.