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Near-quarter of N. Koreans own mobile phones: study

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Feb. 13, 2024 - 17:28

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This photo distributed by North Korea's Rodong Sinmun shows North Koreans walking and using mobile phones. (Rodong Sinmun) This photo distributed by North Korea's Rodong Sinmun shows North Koreans walking and using mobile phones. (Rodong Sinmun)

An estimated six million North Koreans have cellular phones as of 2021, a recently published report by a state-run think-tank said, indicating a wave of change among the people living under the oppressive regime.

The Korea Institute for National Unification conducted a study on how distribution of mobile phones is affecting North Koreans' quality of life, in which they presumed that a little over 23 percent of some 25.7 million North Koreans own smartphones. The consensus was based on estimations by various research institutes and organizations.

The study said that cell phone use in the hermit kingdom rapidly has increased since 2009, which is around the time when network distribution for mobile phones started spreading among the public. According to the researchers, the number of phones using a landline is expected to be around 1.18 million, unchanged since 2008. At the same time, cellphones in North Korea outnumbered landline phones in 2011 and kept growing.

It is yet unclear how much of the mobile phones distributed in North Korea are smartphones, due to lack of related statistics. But researchers speculated that smartphones will eventually outlast any other type of mobile phone in the country, based on anecdotal evidence.

"Production and sale of phones (in North Korea) are centered on state-of-the-art devices, and the structure (of the mobile phone market) is changing so one can only get the parts for non-smartphones second-hand," the researchers wrote, saying transition to smartphones is "only a matter of time."

Based on the claims of 40 people who defected from North Korea, mobile phones in North Korea are sold between $150 and $700, $250 on average. They said North Koreans consider a mobile phone to be a highly liquid asset since its price rarely plunges and can be sold easily.

The money North Koreans spent on a phone is a substantial amount compared to their income. Statistics Korea's December report estimated that North Korea's gross national income per capita in 2022 was 1.43 million won ($1,076), roughly one-30th of that for South Korea.

Despite the high price, it appears that having a mobile phone is becoming crucial to the livelihood of North Koreans. The study quoted a defector from a rural part of the country who said more farmers are buying phones to communicate with those in cities for a good price.