"3G mobile phones have been available starting from Dec. 15, 2008 through the mutual partnership between the [North Korean] Post Office and Egypt's Orascom Telecom, which will make people's daily life more versatile and enjoyable." So boasted North Korean authorities at the launch of the first subscription services there. They even uploaded a video clip about the services on YouTube to promote the regime.
Mobile phone subscriptions in North Korea jumped from 1,600 in 2008 to 300,000 in the third quarter of last year, according to Orascom. The Bank of Korea estimates that North Korea's per capita gross national income was around $1,000 in 2009, so the question is who on earth can afford a mobile phone there. Could growing use of mobile phones lead to socioeconomic changes carrying the wind of democracy which was seen in the Middle East and North Africa.
◆ 3G Mobile Phones
When Orascom announced it was starting business in North Korea in 2008, many doubted it had any future in the impoverished Stalinist country. But at least in Pyongyang, where the elite live, mobile phone use has become fairly common.
South Korean intelligence agencies estimate that up to 450,000 North Koreans subscribe to mobile phone services.
Pyongyang started straight away with the third-generation mobile phone service, so that use of 3G phones is 100 percent, compared to 72 percent in South Korea.
◆ Hard Currency
But subscription requires payment in a foreign currency since the North Korean won is effectively worthless. Users can buy mobile phones and advance payment cards in euros, U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan only. "The people who have hard currency to spend are key party officials and businesspeople with close ties to the regime," said Yang Moon-soo, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. A defector said most subscribers in the North use their phones as status symbols.
◆ Fear of Unrest
But near the border with China, people mostly use Chinese cell phones and communications networks. Their phones are subject to crackdowns by the authorities since they are used primarily for illicit trade with China and human trafficking across the border. If these illegal users are counted, experts estimate that well over half a million North Koreans use mobile phones.
The regime also has other concerns. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are said to have played some part in the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, and the North Korean regime is extremely sensitive about the situation there. The official [North] Korean Central News Agency recently warned in a roundabout way of the spread of mobile phones in an article that said, "U.S. prison inmates have caused problems by smuggling narcotics and weapons into prisons through smartphones."
Yet on March 4, the North said it is accelerating the modernization of the communications network across the country.