North Korean mobile usage is soaring, escapee interviews reveal

The use of mobile phones and Wi-Fi networks in North Korea has risen drastically in recent years, with researchers estimating that between 6.5 million and 7 million citizens are now online.

The notoriously restrictive regime has been slow to adopt mobile internet technologies in comparison to its neighbours, South Korea and China.

But some two decades after the first mobile networks began operating in the capital Pyongyang and the port city of Rason, more than a quarter of the country’s population are now estimated to have some access to the internet.

38 North, a body that conducts research into the reclusive country, has been collecting data from recent interviews with North Korean escapees which indicates that usage of mobile phones is now ubiquitous. As well as communication with friends and family, the devices also underpin North Korea’s private economy – providing a vital tool for communicating with suppliers, buyers and distributors necessary to do business.

Researchers also estimate that the cellular network now covers most of the country, extending well beyond urban centers into rural areas. Interviews with recent escapees corroborate smartphone ownership is larger than previously reported, potentially between 50 and 80 per cent of the adult population.

North Korea’s first 3G network was launched in 2008 through a contract awarded to Egypt’s Orascom Technology. The service, called Koryolink, is still in operation today with Orascom owning a 75 per cent stake in the network and the North Korean government holding the remainder.

Koryolink began with basic feature phones but soon began offering smartphones to North Korean users.

The basic Android handsets originally came with few restrictions and even allowed citizens to watch foreign content, but in 2014 the government forced an update on phone users that brought several new restrictions. The biggest change was the introduction of a digital certificate system that meant a phone could only show government-approved content.

Today, North Korea is covered by two 3G networks, one operated by Koryolink, albeit mostly out of the hands of Orascom, plus the Kang Song network launched by the North Korean government around 2013.

In interviews conducted by 38 North, North Korean escapees have said that Koryolink is now mainly used in Pyongyang, and Kang Song is used by people in other regions. They also say large numbers of people have smartphones.

Many estimated most homes own at least one mobile phone, with total penetration between 50 and 80 per cent of the country.

The researchers have identified more than a thousand cellular base stations from satellite imagery, photos and videos, which provide a range of roughly 5 km for connecting devices, depending on local geography.

“North Korea continues to roll out mobile telecommunications technology to its people but keeps close control over what the people can do with it,” the researchers said. “The country has a lot to gain from deploying this technology, especially in a nation where at least some telephone calls are still patched through by hand.

“However, none of these benefits are absolute. The government continues to monitor domestic communications and has the ability to collect data via these networks, which can potentially be used against individuals in the future.

“Moreover, restrictions on information access – a fundamental human right – have increased during the pandemic years, increasing punishments for unauthorized communications and consumption.”

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