When iPhones Roam in Pyongyang City
By Arnold Fang
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has finally relaxed its long-time restrictions on foreign mobile phones. Not only does it allow tourists and business travellers to carry their phones into the country, they will even be able to use internet on their 3G mobile phones in March. This is certainly good news for aid workers like me who travel into DPRK every now and then. For one thing, we no longer have to turn in our phones to the security staff at Pyongyang airport, or worry about losing that thin piece of paper receipt handed to us by the local authorities, making it impossible to retrieve our phones when we leave the country.
The service is provided by an Egyptian company, which started mobile phone services for the local community in late 2008. Travellers are now able to use their very own 3G devices to make calls as long as they purchase a SIM card as they enter the country at Pyongyang airport. The new measures are definitely an amnesty to people travelling to DPRK. But what kind of implications would this have on the locals? We can try to understand this from two angles:
1) Freedom of information
A survey of reports on international media would show divided views on whether a relaxation of rules on mobile phones would also mean increased freedom of information in the country, which has long been isolated from the cables and newswires that link up the rest of the world. Some commentators pointed out that the mobile network used by foreigners is still segregated from the one used by locals. For the moment, foreigners will not be able to call local mobile phones, while locals remain unable to make overseas calls. Even if local residents bought a brand new smart phone, which was rolled out in DPRK last year, they would only be able to access the country’s intranet. It would still be difficult for them to access international news or information from foreign sources. Due to this segregation of networks, the entrance of foreign mobiles and mobile internet may not mean freer access to information in the country.
Nonetheless, if we view this new policy as a step within a slow process towards a more open country, we can still be cautiously optimistic about the future of information freedom in DPRK. The DPRK government has allowed limited openings in its iron curtain of information. Authorised personnel could access the internet legally and rather freely, at certain sites such as the national Kim Il-Sung University as well as the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST, also a partner of Oxfam in DPRK). According to a source at PUST, computer users could even freely use Skype and watch YouTube on campus – the latter is something you cannot do even in China without first cracking the “great firewall.”
With the recent visit of Google chief Eric Schmidt, we can indeed expect a future in terms of the country’s development in internet services. It remains a matter of curiosity whether the current separation between the domestic and international networks could be bridged – either through legal methods or more shady tricks.
2) Economic development
What is beyond doubt is that the new policy is a major improvement to the environment for doing business in DPRK. Until now, we foreigners had to resort to the costly services offered by the state hotels, unless we had the luxury of a local office in Pyongyang. An email of less than 25KB, for example, would cost 20 Chinese yuan – even if it contained just one single sentence!
Email sent from hotels run the chance of going through surveillance by authorities, and in some cases, were treated as junk mail when they arrived in the mailbox of the recipient outside DPRK. What was more inconvenient was when you needed urgent communications outside the hotel, and none of your personal electronic devices would work. In the fast-moving business world today, this would be a major drawback for businesspersons. The same goes for humanitarian workers trying to provide emergency assistance in the country.
This slight relaxation in policy is therefore a meaningful improvement in the difficult working conditions in the country. At the same time, it is a significant step in DPRK’s opening up of its economy. Better late than never, the decision is a sensible step in developing the country’s economy, and in improving the lives of its people.
Arnold Fang is Programme Officer – DPR Korea with Oxfam.
Oxfam Hong Kong began supporting agricultural and humanitarian initiatives in DPR Korea in 1997 and started implementing long-term development programmes with local partners in the country since 2005.