Once a luxury, smartphones now a necessity in North Korea

Smartphones were once regarded as a sign of wealth in North Korea, but are now considered a necessity with residents demanding services and features such as high quality audio.
“In the beginning of the 2010s, wealthy homes could only afford a single cell phone, but now there are families that have two phones. This shows how much ownership has increased,” said a Ryanggang Province source during a call with Daily NK on May 11.  
“Even families with limited funds have started to consider cell phones a necessity,” said the source. “Poorer residents sometimes use folding cell phones. Residents from the lowest classes generally buy the cheapest, used phones for sale in the markets.”
Depending on the quality of the phone and the features it offers, some phones sell for US $100-400, with the highest quality smartphones fetching US $700-900. 
“Even financially struggling families sometimes buy a tachi pone (loan word for “touch phone,” meaning “smartphone”) if they have a child in university. Through the tachi pone, the student can access various academic materials and lots of games enjoyed by the younger generation. Even though it’s a financial burden, some strive to make the purchase,” the source explained.
It is estimated that North Korea currently has 3.8 million registered mobile communications subscribers. North Korea went into partnership with Egyptian firm Orascom to build up the country’s mobile network, called Koryolink, in 2008. After this time, the number of mobile users climbed quickly. The problem lies in the quality of the calls. “Some calls get disconnected, leaving residents wanting better reception,” the source said.
“Ryanggang Province is located on the border with China, where [the authorities employ] radio locators and radio jammers [to block residents from calling the outside world]. This means the call quality is bad, and there are times when the call will get cut and an automated voice will say, ‘Out of reception area.’ These incidents are increasingly frequent as one moves further away from the transmitter stations. Near the Yalu River, the problem is particularly severe,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province explained.
The mobile communications environment is significantly different between Pyongyang and the country’s rural regions. The service quality is considered particularly poor in North Hamgyong and Ryanggang Province, where jammers and a lack of transmitter stations impact reception. In 2008, Koryolink was launched, and in 2011 a state firm called Kangsong Net began operations, but residents have continued to notice problems with call quality. 
Meanwhile, prices for universal SIM cards are rising. Explaining the high prices, a source in north Hamgyong Province said, “Universal SIM cards are hi-tech products, so they’re not manufactured in North Korea. They have to come in through China. There are problems importing the USIM chips these days, so the prices aren’t going down.”  
Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.