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Asia

North Korea's cell phone boom

North Korea has one of the fastest growing 3G mobile phone networks. According to an Egyptian telecom firm that has partnered with Pyongyang, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are signing up for the new service.

Mobile phones have been banned in North Korea since 2004

Mobile phones have been banned in North Korea since 2004

North Korea is often described as a black hole, stuck in a sort of Soviet era time warp.

So it might be surprising that North Korea has a quickly expanding 3G mobile phone network. It also might be surprising that there’s a video on Youtube promoting it.

After an animated intro, a voice-over says that Koryolink, the name of the cellular service, started in December 2008 as a joint venture between the government and Orascom, an Egyptian telecommunications firm. For the moment, it says, Koryolink only offers voice and SMS services.

There are now 500,000 subscribers and the market is growing

There are now 500,000 subscribers and the market is growing



And judging by the shots of people talking on their mobiles, it appears that smart phones have yet to hit the market.

Egyptian model

Calls to Ezz Heikal, the Egyptian CEO of Koryolink in Pyongyang, could not go through. But in an e -mail, he wrote that the service currently has around a half a million subscribers, up from just 1,600 two years ago. Service is paid for with a mix of local and foreign currencies.

Heikal says that even though North Koreans can only make and receive domestic calls, it’s a good start for the nation after not being allowed to use cell phones for several years.

North Korea banned cell phones in 2004, after what some analysts suspect was the cell phone-triggered bombing of a train station. Some speculate it was a failed assassination attempt on leader Kim Jong-il.

But some observers say Pyongyang’s new partnership with Orascom has given officials confidence that this technology won’t be used against them. Martyn Williams is Tokyo bureau chief of the IT media company IDG and runs the North Korea Tech blog. He says, "By working with the Egyptian government, they’re also working with a country that has been very friendly to North Korea. So, I think they can be assured that the network will be employed in a way that gives them the ability to control it."

The social uprising in Egypt is said to have been inspired by new forms of communication

The social uprising in Egypt is said to have been inspired by new forms of communication



Cell phone revolution

Of course, that Egyptian government was overthrown by a popular revolution that was spurred on by the use of cell phones and social media. But Koryolink isn’t the only cell phone network that can be picked up there, Williams says.

Many North Korean refugees in the south speak with family via phones that receive Chinese wireless signals from across the border. One survey says that as many as 3,000 calls are made each day between the two Koreas on this network.



54 –year-old Kim Tae Jin defected to South Korea in 2001 and now works for the human rights group NK Gulag in Seoul. He says North Korean police are cracking down on these phones. "Its considered a political crime to use Chinese cell phones, Kim says. When we talk to North Koreans, they have to turn the phones on and off frequently, so the authorities can’t monitor and track down the signal."

Kim says he doesn’t know if North Korean authorities monitor the new 3G network, too. But he says most people there already know better than to say anything over the phone that could be considered a political crime.

Author: Jason Strother
Editor: Sarah Berning

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