North Korea has made it clear it wishes to improve the nation’s telecommunication environment. But due to the poor condition of the country’s infrastructure, major developments like next-generation internet are still a long way off, and the country will likely settle for improvements to existing facilities. According to a source, those improvements could be as basic as automating operator-connected phones.

A source in North Korea said in a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Wednesday that provinces, cities and counties were still using telecom systems from 50 years ago with manual switchboards. “The order from the Eighth Party Congress intends to replace this with the latest technology,” he said.

This means the “technological renewal of telecommunication infrastructure” raised by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the Eighth Party Congress was an order to change manual switchboards into automated ones in the country’s cities.

According to a study of North Korea’s wired and wireless communication services by Kim Yun-do, an associate researcher at South Korea’s Korea Information Society Development Institute’s International Cooperation Research Division, North Korea uses automated exchanges in Pyongyang, provincial capitals and other major cities, and manual switchboards in small and mid-sized cities as well as in rural areas.

In response, North Korea is apparently trying to boost connection speeds and call quality by replacing existing telecom equipment with automated exchanges in smaller provincial cities.

However, the source said it might be somewhat difficult for now to realize Kim’s hopes – which he expressed on the same day of the party congress – to “quickly execute” a next-generation telecommunications system. 

North Koreans peruse cell phones on offer
North Koreans peruse cell phones on offer. / Image: Sogwang

“Currently, our mobile communication system is worthless – you could say it stopped at the first or second generation [technology],” said the source. “In this situation, the internet doesn’t work well, so it’s meaningless to talk of the fourth or fifth generation [technology].”

North Korea reportedly uses third generation mobile communications. However, the mobile telecom environment is so poor that dead zones appear or users face difficulty sending multimedia text messages.

The source says it is way too early to talk of next-generation mobile communications when North Korea is having trouble modernizing facilities and equipment currently in use.

“Internally, it’s almost impossible to indigenously produce and distribute the latest communications equipment,” said the source. “Because of this, you need to import the equipment to improve the environment from China, but currently, conditions [to do this] aren’t good.”

North Korea reportedly imports most of the equipment used in automated telephone exchanges or mobile communications from China. However, with the border sealed due to COVID-19 and North Korea banned from importing advanced electronics due to international sanctions, the country is having a tough time securing the equipment.

Because of this, North Korea might make slow progress in improving its telecommunication environment, confident proclamations by North Korean authorities not withstanding.

“The popularization and diversification of mobile communications mentioned by the Supreme People’s Assembly means increasing the types of mobile phones,” said the source. “Telecom businesses might increase in the future, but currently the conditions aren’t there.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and Kim Chaek University of Technology are leading efforts to improve North Korea’s communication environment.

“The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications is handling the project to improve the telecom environment,” said the source. “Labs operating under the ministry and a lab at Kim Chaek University of Technology are developing telecom technology.”

Relatedly, the Korea Central News Agency reported in 2018 that a project to modernize the country’s telecommunications was underway at a Ministry of Post and Telecommunications research lab, led by graduates of the Kim Chaek University of Technology.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to