April 8th is Postal Service Day in North Korea. Each province has a branch office of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and Communication Maintenance Bureau. The postal system manages the distribution of letters, telegrams, telephone calls, TV broadcasts, newspapers and magazines. Additionally, they mint stamps and also operate an insurance agency in name only.
In the late 1990s, the national postal system was completely ruined
In North Korea, postal service offices are set up in each “ri”—a small village unit–, of each county to deliver letters, parcel posts and telegrams. Following the March of Tribulation in the late 1990s, the delivery system was completely destroyed and its formal structure was left in tatters. Even in the 1980s when the North Korean economy and people’s lives were relatively stable, it took around 15 days to two months on average to deliver a letter from Pyongyang to a rural village.
In the case of a telegram, it took generally 3 or 4 days to reach a postal office in a rural area. In the late 1980s, to guarantee efficiency within the telegram delivery system, the authorities supplied the offices with second-hand bicycles from Japan.
After the March of Tribulation, letters disappeared due to train delays and frequent blackouts, and the telegram service was virtually incapacitated due to the lack of electricity.
Telephones were restricted to control the outflow of national secrets
North Korea uses a separate electricity supply for its telephone system. Even if there is a power blackout in a village, villagers can still use the telephone network. In 1993, fiber-optic cables were installed and the use of mail and telegram services began to decline. North Korean people call fiber optic cable a “light telephone.”
North Korea built an automatic telecommunicates system by developing multi-communication technology with imports of machinery and by inviting engineers from China in 1998.
In 2003, authorities allowed cadres to use telephones in their houses and in 2005, they also allowed people to use the telephone at home as long as they paid 2,000 North Korean won (approx. USD0.6) a month (a monthly salary is 1,500 won per laborer).
In August, 2007, the government tightened regulations regarding the telephone system. People could make calls only within their province. Authorities said the reason was to prevent the outflow of national secrets.
The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications controls TV and other broadcasting. There is no cable TV in North Korea. Authorities set up an ultra-short wave relay station in each county to relay television broadcasts.
North Korea signed a contract with Thailand for satellite broadcasting and installed U.S.-made transmission and relay facilities in 2000.
People can now listen to “Chosun Central Broadcasting,” but in rural areas, it is difficult to recieve signals because the broadcasting facilities and cables have already begun to deteriorate.
People sarcastically say a “newspaper is not about news but about “olds.” The authorities pay special attention to the successful delivery of the Workers Party Rodong Shinmun bulletin. To deliver Rodong Shinmun from Pyongyang to each province or even to each city and county by train, it normally takes 4-5 days. Sometimes, it takes more than a week.
People also say they use an “oral-paper” to get information because rumors are faster than the Rodong Shinmun.
Postal service workers were dragged to prison camps
In 1992, the Minister and all related officials of Posts and Telecommunications were fired, and the Minister, the Vice Minister and their families were sent to political prison camps for having wasted national finances for the import of factory machinery to produce fiber-optic cables from the U.K.
They submitted a proposal to Kim Jong Il to buy factory machines in order to earn foreign currency through the production and export of fiber optic cables. However, in the end they eventually bought worn-out machines from the U.K. and failed to earn profits. In addition, they embezzled some of the funds.
In 2001, in Lee Myung Soo Workers-District of Samjiyeon, Yangkang Province, two office workers and a manager of a relay station broadcasted Chinese TV programs that they were watching to residents by mistake, so they were sent to a political prison camp and their families were expelled to a collective farm.
Agents of the National Security Agency are stationed at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in order to scrutinize mail, parcels, to tap telephone wires and to supervise residents.
The Ministry regularly dispatches professional engineers to the 27th Bureau, to the airwaves-monitoring station, and to the 12th Bureau, which was newly established to censor mobile phones.
On Postal Service Day, Chosun Central Agency often delivers praise for the development of North Korea’s postal system and facilities under the General’s direction.
However, most ordinary citizens will not be able to watch or read about it in time, for the lack of paper, electricity, infrastructure, and delivery systems.