The North Korean regime has recently ordered a nationwide shutdown of landline telephone services as it attempts to change its phone number system. Across the country, ordinary residents and officials alike are reacting to the measure with open frustration. The move appears to be in response to an incident last summer in which an official phone directory was smuggled out of the country.
A source in the capital Pyongyang informed Daily NK on December 11 that “landline telephone services in Pyongyang and elsewhere have been suspended since the authorities began working on changing the phone number system. Merchant activity has been disrupted of course, but even government offices have been hurt by the move.”
During this year’s summer, an internal phone directory containing numbers for government departments as well as other private lines was smuggled out of the country, causing a headache for the authorities.
Regarding the leak, the source said that “people along the border suspected of smuggling phone books (in both 2016 and 2017) have been arrested by the police and state security. It’s ridiculous and there’s nothing in them, but since people outside the country are interested in them, the government has classified all phone directories as sensitive documents.”
According to the source, merchants are facing difficulties with the outage as they can no longer easily coordinate business with partners in other regions. They are now scrambling to find mobile phone numbers for partners with whom they previously communicated by landline.
Another source in North Hamgyong Province added that “many are feeling uneasy now, because in the markets in South Pyongan Province, we have not been able to contact other merchants in the Pyongsong market. Landline phone services are preferred among merchants due to their cheaper usage fees over mobile services, so this has really caused us a lot of problems.”
Even workers in state-owned companies are complaining, demanding a speedy return of landline services as they fear the increased costs associated with mobile phone usage. Some have been forced to consider suspending work as a result.
Workers away on business trips must also now use personal mobile phones in order to keep their managers updated on their trade activities – work that is typically considered of utmost importance to the central authorities.
A significant lingering concern is just how long it will take to restore the services. People have been heard complaining about the country’s “turtle pace” compared to the rest of the world, suspecting that it may be 6 months before service is restored.
“Staff within the communications department tasked with conducting the switch are asking how anyone can expect them to work hard on the project when there is a lack of funding. People want a new policy from the government instead of waiting around forever like this,” the North Hamgyong-based source added.
Landline phone services only became available to most citizens toward the end of the 1990s, starting with Pyongyang and then spreading to the outer provinces in the early 2000s. The service became especially popular with merchants as market activities expanded across the country in the 2010s.