SEOUL (Reuters) – Up to 7 million North Koreans use cell phones daily, and WiFi networks have sharply expanded in recent years as the mobile devices increasingly became a key tool for market activity in the isolated country, US researchers said on Tuesday.
Martyn Williams and Natalia Slavney of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North program say their latest study on digital communications in North Korea, which included an analysis of satellite imagery and a survey of about 40 defects who fled the North between 2017 and 2021, shows a stable rise in cellular subscribers.
Since 3G network services began in 2008, the number of users has risen to 6.5 million to 7 million, more than a quarter of North Korea’s 25 million population, the researchers said.
“More than 90% of the people who participated in the survey reported using the phone at least daily, and most of the calls were made to family members and traders,” Slavney told a briefing.
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They showed an estimated coverage map of North Korea’s cellular network by identifying base stations, accompanying antennas and solar panels from satellite images, which Williams said suggested the service is available not only in cities but also “deep into the rural areas.”
“The cellular coverage is still expanding, sometimes we’re finding base stations where if you look at the same area two years ago, the antenna was not there,” he said.
The country’s antiquated 3G network and limits on foreign investment in upgrades because of sanctions over its weapons programs has prompted the emergence of faster WiFi networks around the country, Williams said.
The WiFi networks do not offer any Internet access but provide connections to domestic services, especially scientific databases for the research community, he added.
Poor infrastructure means there are few landlines, the researchers said, so mobile phones fill gaps and serve as a critical tool for participating in a private market economy, which has become a key source of income for many.
The private sector has overtaken state-led agents to become North Korea’s biggest economic actor in recent years, with its rationing system crumbling and leader Kim Jong Un allowing markets abhorred by his father.
“For the last five to 10 years, the rise of the private economy and private marketplaces was one of the biggest changes in the country,” Williams said. “In a way, one of the pillars of the entire market economy is the wide availability of basic telephone and text messaging.”
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Gerry Doyle)
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