April 23, 2011 08:45
Recent weeks have seen a spate of reports about mobile phone use in North Korea, but exactly how many users there are seems difficult to establish.
The reclusive country opened a mobile communications network back in 1998, and the number of users surged from just 3,000 in 2002 to 30,000 in 2004. And it began to grow seriously in 2008 when Egypt's Orascom Telecom and North Korea's Choson Posts and Telecomm Corporation established CHEO Technology, offering a third-generation WCDMA-based mobile phone service called Koryolink.
According to global telecom market researcher Ovum, there are between 400,000 to 450,000 mobile phone users in North Korea. The first handsets that sold in the North were Motorola and Nokia models, but according to Kim Heung-kwang of defector group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, handsets were later made in China on a consignment basis and misleadingly labeled as made in North Korea.
Orascom has the monopoly in North Korea until 2012. "Orascom faithfully toes the line on what the North Korean regime wants. Since they would not do anything that could create a systemic crisis, North Korea chose Orascom," said Angel Dobardziev of Ovum. "The profitability of [its] North Korea operation is exceedingly high." He added when the contract expires next year, competitors may enter the country and erode profitability.
The mobile phone penetration rate in North Korea is only about 1.3 percent, far lower than South Korea's 103.9 percent, but the average usage time amounts to 300 minutes, more or less the level of South Korea's. Hwang Sung-jin of the Korea Information Society Development Institute, said this is because of brisk usage among high-ranking North Korean officials.
North Korea prohibits international mobile calls. "It has recently become sensitive about the spread of mobile phones, taking steps to block people from bringing in the devices," said Suk Ho-ick of KT, the chairman of the IT Unification Forum.
When it comes to fixed-line communications, most of the networks are based in Pyongyang and other major cities and used mainly by the privileged, while people in rural areas still use manual connection services through operators.
A closed Internet service began in North Korea in 1999 through the Kwangmyong internal network, and around 50,000 people are believed to be using the service.
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