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Number of N.K. mobile phone users jump in recent years

Spread of information through phones may not immediately lead to big change: experts

The number of North Korean mobile phone users has jumped in recent years, with the figure projected to top the 1-million mark by year’s end, an unusual phenomenon in the tightly controlled state.

In the last three months, there has been an increase of around 140,000 cellular phone registrations, according to a recent report by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom, the sole wireless carrier in the communist country.

The figure, which stood at only around 70,000 in 2009, rose to 300,000 last year and 809,000 as of September.

Despite this increase, most of the users apparently belong to the social/political upper echelon in the capital of Pyongyang, defectors and experts said.

“The North Korean regime allows those mostly from the upper crust to use these wireless services as they are loyal to the regime and thus do not pose any threat to it,” a North Korean defector who came here in the late 1990s via China told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity.

“Some of those at the bottom of the pecking order who hold grudges against society at large may have difficulty owning their own mobile phones, which I believe the vested interests can enjoy there.”

Although cellphone prices went down recently, they are still luxury items for ordinary North Koreans, whose average monthly income is around $15. A mobile phone in the North is priced at around $350.

Some defectors said that North Korean citizens may purchase cheaper second-hand phones on the black market, pushing up the number of mobile phone users.

According to news reports, seeing young people in their 20s and 30s in Pyongyang chatting over the phone is quite common. In the past, many of the users were merchants doing business with Chinese partners.

“All the waitresses in coffee shops have them, for example, and use them. Let’s not even talk about businessmen. They are never off them and conversations are frequently interrupted by mobile calls,” Reuters quoted Michael Hay, a lawyer based in Pyongyang for the last seven years, as saying.

For the reclusive regime focusing on the third-generation hereditary power succession, the increased mobile phone use is quite unpalatable as it could impede its efforts to block the spread of information, particularly against the regime.

At a time when popular aspirations for democracy are spreading across the Middle East and North Africa through wireless communication tools, observers said the North might feel unnerved.

The Pyongyang regime still sternly punishes those making international phone calls using Chinese-registered phones as they could bring in outside information to awaken the oppressed people.

Experts, however, said that with the ban on international calls, the increase would not have an immediate influence on the isolated country with a population of nearly 25 million people.

“It is like a hide-and-seek game. While there is an increase in the number of cellphone registrations, the government will develop or complement its control mechanisms,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told The Korea Herald.

“The phones are exclusively for domestic use, and it will allow the increase within its capacity to control them.”

Dong Yong-sueng, senior fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute, said that as the cellphone penetration rate in the North is still low, the recent increase will not have a great influence on North Korean society.

“Many already use corded phones and the mobile phones are all for the local calls. There is not much difference between the two. Should the number increase significantly, it would have an influence, but at this point, the cellphones used by the middle class will not have any serious impact,” he said.

In 2008, the North inked a deal with Orascom to establish a joint firm, called Koryolink, which provides a 3G network mobile service to its citizens. Under the deal, Orascom holds 75 percent of the stakes in the firm while the North gets the rest.

The deal lifted a four-year ban on cellphone use.

In 2004, authorities imposed the ban after it suspected that a cellphone was used in an explosion at a station that occurred just several minutes after a train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il passed through.

Professor Yang said that the North appears to allow mobile phone use as the Egyptian firm is expected to make reinvestments with the revenues raked in from North Koreans.

“We should look at the increase from the economic perspective. If Orascom makes money from the calling fees, it would reinvest it in North Korean infrastructures and other areas such as renovating major hotels and constructing apartments,” he said.

“(Allowing the number of cellphone subscribers to increase) can be seen as an indirect investment for the North Korean people in the long run.”

One defector said that there are still many people secretly making international phone calls from the North to talk with those who have taken asylum in the South.

As it is banned, they use phones registered with Chinese mobile carriers who collect calling fees from their relatives in the South.

“On the border with China, there are a lot of wireless telecom stations for mobile users, so many use Chinese phones to talk with their relatives in the South. Through their talks, they come to assess the reality in the North, something the regime is concerned about,” he said, declining to be identified.

“As a means to collect opinions and rally any forces behind a cause, yes, the spread of the cellphones will have a great influence sometime in the future.”

By Song Sang-ho