Merchant cell phone
A North Korean merchant using a cell phone at a local market. / Image: Daily NK

Some North Korean merchants have started to use the video chatting feature on their smartphones to cut down on business travel costs, Daily NK sources recently reported. 

“Smartphones are mostly used to show products to other merchants,” a Pyongyang source told Daily NK last Thursday. “Older flip phones did not have the video chat function, but there’s now a growing understanding that you need a smartphone to do business.”

Flip phones had long been considered a necessity for merchants. Now as more and more merchants sell their wares through video calls, however, older flip phones are being pushed out in favor of smartphones. Video calls require both parties to have smartphones, which means that the number of merchants using smartphones will likely increase. 

North Korea has shortened the time behind the launch of new smartphone models, which suggests that state authorities are increasing supply in response to growing demand. In fact, North Korea recently announced the development of a new smartphone, “Kildongmu,” for example. 

The merchants seem indifferent to the fact that video chatting is significantly (about 3.5 times) more expensive than regular phone calls. “The merchants who video call continue to purchase call credits,” explained another Daily NK source. 

Call credits are a kind of “phone money” sold in North Korea to top up available call minutes. North Koreans use phone money not just on call minutes but also to send funds and purchase products.  

“One won” in phone money is about KPW 400, while a five-minute video call costs about “75 won” in phone money, or KPW 30,000, Daily NK sources have said. That is, a five-minute video call costs the same as six kilograms of rice – a significant sum for ordinary North Koreans. 

The growing number of merchants using video calls can be attributed in part to North Korea’s poor transportation infrastructure. Video chatting is ultimately cheaper than traveling to another city with a truckload of things to sell. 

According to an investigation conducted by Daily NK last year, traveling from Kujang to Sinuiju in North Pyongan Province costs KPW 80,000, with one piece of luggage costing KPW 5,000–10,000. Traveling a distance of about 160 kilometers, from Kaechon in South Pyongan Province to Sinuiju, for example, takes no less than 13 hours by van. On top of this, a USD 100 (approximately KPW 800,000) bribe is needed to acquire a travel permit. Given all these costs, making a video call costs just about a third of the price of traveling from Kujang to Sinuiju. 

*Translated by Violet Kim

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