Shenyang, China — Cell phone customer numbers are rising while the price of the handsets is falling, according to sources from inside North Korea.
One such source from Pyongyang reported on the 18th, “The phone bill is no different from in the past, only the price of the cell phone itself is falling.”
According to sources, in Pyongyang a single-piece handset has gone from $280 to $250, and a clamshell design from $400 to $380 (at the exchange rate in South Pyongan Province, one dollar is presently worth 2,500 North Korean won, while a kilo of rice continues to drift in the 2,000 won range).
The source explained, “Cell phone users keep increasing. In Pyongyang, approximately 60% of people between their 20s and 50s use cell phones. Especially for the younger generation in their 20s and 30s, a cell phone is seen as a necessary item,” he said.
A source from Shinuiju also commented, “Around three out of ten young people have got a cell phone, and prices have been cut a bit.”
A source from South Pyongan Province agreed, too, saying, “Cell phone bills and prices have dropped compared with in the beginning. A basic cell phone (single-piece) is $225 and an expensive one is $300. You pay 30,000 won in our money, and then you can use it for 200 minutes.”
The source went on, “But when you buy a $10 card, you can use it for 600 minutes. This is a state policy to earn dollars.”
He explained that according to the jangmadang exchange rate, $10 is currently 25,000 won, meaning that payment for credit in dollars is of huge benefit in terms of value for money.
However, there is still an application fee of $800 and registration fee of $100, as before.
The source reported, “Cell phone traders purchase cell phones using their families’ and relatives’ names,” because only one handset per person is allowed. “Since there are many people who have obtained a cell phone in another’s name, their cell phones occasionally get confiscated when they go to the telephone office to pay the bill and get their ID checked.”
In a connected story, Radio Free Asia reported on the 19th that Koryo Link has added another 100,000 subscribers to its books since the end of last year, bringing the total number to 535,133 as of the end of March.
However, in contrast with Pyonyang and the interior areas of North Korea where usage is growing, the battle in the border region is still to restrict and control cell phone usage. Distinguishing a Chinese cell phone is not easy, so cracking down on the practice of using them is not easy, either, and therefore the method of applying for a cell phone has been made more difficult, among other measures.
According to one Yangkang Province source, “One person who took cell phones brought in by smugglers in March, remodeled and sold them was arrested by the People’s Safety Ministry, and in the light of that the process for applying for a cell phone here got stricter. The person who wishes to buy the phone must have the signature of a National Security agent now. In the beginning, there was no such rule.”
In North Korea, applications for cell phones are handled by sales offices; however, the procedure is more difficult now, and so some get the handset from a smuggler and only the number from the local office, in order to avoid the process. Of course, bribes are necessary to facilitate that, currently approximately $400-$450 in Yangkang Province.
According to sources, an official North Korean cell phone works on a different frequency to those from China in order to stop their being used to connect outside the country. However, if the frequency of a smuggled phone is changed to match North Korea’s, then the cell phone can be used.