There are now more than two million people in North Korea with mobile phones. According to Naguib Sawiris of Egypt's Orascom Telecom, which has the mobile phone license in the isolated country, the number of subscribers hit the landmark in May this year.
North Korea launched mobile phone services in conjunction with a Thai company in 2002 in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone near the Chinese border. But use was restricted following a massive explosion at Yongchon Station in North Pyongan Province in April 2004 that allegedly targeted a train carrying then leader Kim Jong-il. Shrapnel from a mobile phone were found at the scene of the blast, prompting security officials to believe a mobile phone was used to detonate the bomb.
In 2008, North Korea set up Koryolink with Orascom. The number of subscribers stood at only 1,600 in the first year but rose to 100,000 in 2009, 500,000 in May 2011 and a million a year later.
Mobile phone users are not just concentrated in Pyongyang but now scattered evenly throughout the 15 major cities and around 100 smaller towns. Party members and other influential or wealthy people are the main clients. High-ranking officials often own two or three mobile phones each, while their children in high school have handsets too.
Chinese-made mobile phones, including ones from Huawei, are mostly used, but party bigwigs favor Motorola and Nokia. A mobile phone costs US$150-300. The latest touch-screen phone costs $350 and between $20 to $30 is paid upfront for activation, according to defectors.
Mobile phones sold legally in North Korea feature not only voice and video calls but also text messaging, video recording and even games, but international calls are blocked. Phone calls are also prohibited with foreigners living in North Korea.
However, North Korean merchants doing business along the Chinese border or informants make calls to other countries on handsets smuggled in from China. One source said North Korea recently decided to allow international calls in Rajin-Sonbong in a bid to attract foreign investment, but this has yet to go into effect.