More than 1 million North Koreans have subscribed to mobile phone services, the exclusive mobile operator Orascom Telecom said Thursday. The number crossed the 1 million mark about three years after a joint venture called Koryolik was set up, with 75 percent owned by the Egyptian provider and 25 percent by Post Office.
Subscriptions soared rapidly to about 90,000 in late 2009 and 430,000 in late 2010. But the rate of mobile phone use still stands at only 4 percent.
The rapid spread is surprising given the regime's fears about losing control, said Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University.
Nonetheless, mobile phones are allowed to spread because they fatten the regime's coffers. Koryolink posted sales of US$250 million over three years, about $200 million of which is profits.
According to a source, 75 percent of profits go to Orascom but all of them are reinvested in the North. Real profits come from sales of handsets, which are monopolized by the regime. A handset imported from China at the price of $80 sells for $300, netting the regime about $200 million.
At that price only the privileged class in Pyongyang and surroundings and rich market traders can afford them.
"Senior party, military, and government officials avoid using mobile phones for fear of wiretapping. Most of the mobile phone users are market traders," a researcher at a government-funded think tank in South Korea said. "In a way, the regime is turning a blind eye to the spread of mobile phones use in a bid to absorb wealth that market traders have accumulated."