1 in 10 North Koreans may have cell phones, says study

Pic: AP.

In what is considered the most isolated country in the world, over two million people were reported to have registered mobile phones in North Korea, according to research by John Hopkins University.

Written by Voice of America journalist Kim Yonho through John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the study found that one in 10 of North Korea’s 24 million population have cell phones, with mobile networks available in over 100 cities including Pyongyang. Networks cover about 14 percent of the country’s landscape and 94 percent of its population.

The report suggests that the government could no longer monopolize the information available to its population since the collapse of the public food distribution system in the 2000s. With the system’s end, more illicit cross-border trade brought in foreign technology including televisions, radios, MP3 players and Chinese cell phones. This allowed people living in border areas to freely use via reception from China.

To crackdown on Chinese mobile phones, the North Korean government founded its own domestic cell phone service provider, Koryolink, in 2008. Although mobile telecommunication services had already been established in 2002 – by a Thai company Loxley Pacific, which 2G GSM mobile services – the government confiscated all registered phones within two years amid fears of terror attacks.

Graph taken from SAIS report.

Services were restarted by North Korea’s official cellular network in 2008 and have been operated uninterrupted by the government.

In the last half-decade, cell phone subscribers have grown exponentially – growing to one million by 2011 and over two million by 2013. Pyongyang with its highest concentration of wealth is expected to have more subscribers with one in five residents predicted to have mobile devices.

However, the paper does question the accuracy of Koryolink’s mobile usage report, arguing the majority of North Koreans could not afford the phone or the resulting bill. Based on the country’s per capita GDP and the fact that the average factory worker makes roughly 3,000 North Korean won per month, or less than 50 cents at black market exchange rates, the report there is evidence to suggest the numbers are “dramatically increased”.

In addition, some see the numbers as a strategic move by Orascom, the Egyptian telecom company that holds a 75 percent stake in Koryolink. By boosting its performance report, the implications would improve investor relations and resolve other tax issues.

But with North Korea granting a 25-year license to Orascom including the company’s unprecedented scale of investments in the country’s infrastructure, the study says Pyongyang seems committed to its mobile telecommunication industry. While the industry will provide economic development, the report claims that cell phones have historically strengthened individuality and social movements, providing opportunity for political upheaval.

Even today, it is a crime in North Korea to meet in a group with more than three people without government approval.