North Korea Bans Use of Mobile Phones

The use of mobile phones is currently banned in North Korea, due in part to the death of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, December 7 last year. There is concern from his successors and the coutnry’s officials that the nation is in unsteady state, which is predictably getting worse. Said ban on the use of cellular phones will last through the departed dictator’s 100-day mourning period. Those caught will be branded as “war criminals” and get punished accordingly.

Citizens caught using mobile phones or attempting to flee from the country will be punished by being sent to a hard-labor camp or being executed. Both threats are “infinite wisdom” issues by existing government run by Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un.

Actually, banning cell phones in North Korea has happened before. Back in 2004, according to World Politics Review, the country banned the sale and use of cellular devices, and has resulted in the rise of a mobile black market, with relay stations set up on the Chinese border to connect North Koreans to the South.

North Korea allowed limited access to cell phones in December of 2008 and limited access to the internet is available on mobile devices since three years ago. It is estimated that only 0.09 percent of its total population, around 20,000 people (from 23 million citizens), now have cell phones even though 400 million dollars estimated was spent to build the infrastructure of 3G network in the country.

It changes drastically now. November last year, according to Reuters, with 49,000 percent growth, they have hit 1 million users on its new 3G network. Another report from Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability said around 60 percent of people between the ages of 20 and 50 used cell phones in the capital city, Pyongyang, which has a total population of 3 million.

Kim Jong-il, who died at the age of 69 reportedly due to heart attack, has left his country in the condition of economic mismanagement and stagnation. There are apparently fears in Pyongyang that Kim’s demise the would trigger civil unrest, and an eventual power struggle that might lead to the collapse of the existing government run by Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un. Similar revolutions in the Middle East last year be a precedent that authorities are worried about. Dwindling food supplies might also be another factor contributing to the increasing number of North Koreans attempting to cross the border into China. Many have managed to reach South Korea, with an estimated 23,000 defectors settling there to date.

“Of course, it’s easy to see why the regime is becoming so antsy about cell phone usage. The Arab Spring protests were energized by Twitter and Facebook via cell phones, and other mass movements including the Occupy protests were spread through this medium as well,” reports Foreign Policy magazine.

In a nation where the average income is about $1 a month and cell phone ownership is a highly restricted privilege even though the telecommunications market is still small (with isolated growth, non-competition, high subscription fees and full government control), the oppressive government of one of the poorest countries in the world does not seem to want any risk, even amid the rapid growth of the mobile industry elsewhere.