This article was authored by John C. Tanner, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.
For those of you curious about the state of mobile in North Korea …
A recent Wall Street Journal article says that there are now over a million mobile users in the country, according to Orascom, the Egyptian-based telco that is a partner with Koryolink, North Korea’s monopoly 3G operator. All of that is prepaid and it only amounts to a 4% penetration rate – which isn’t surprising, as handsets are too expensive for most North Koreans.
However, Orascom’s official subscriber base isn’t the whole story, the WSJ reports:
There are also Chinese handsets smuggled into the country, which form a vital link in exchanging information with the outside world. Merchants doing business in the nation's numerous jangmadang, or private markets, sell those models illegally for around a quarter the price of Koryolink's devices. These mobile phones are served by Chinese networks with coverage extending into North Korea and can be used to make international calls from areas near the China-North Korea border.
Some phone owners who live near the border have made a business of renting the phones to people who want to make calls to China or South Korea, said Han Sok Kyu, a North Korean defector residing in Tokyo.
The underground international call service is significant, as IDD calls are banned by the regime.
So are video cameras and memory cards, both of which have been disabled in phones inside the country since October 2011, according to a separate report in the Korea Times:
The North also removed the Bluetooth function, a protocol that allows mobile phone users to exchange data over short distances, and blocked subscribers from using mobile phones beyond the city where they are registered, Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported, citing a Japanese journalist familiar with the issue.
"Mobile phones have played a big role in spreading information," said Ishimaru Jiro, the publisher of Rimjin-gang Magazine, which is written by undercover journalists inside the North, according to RFA. With the technological restrictions, however, the new mobile phones "have lost key functions for the spread and proliferation of information inside and outside North Korea," he said.