North Korean mobile phones come in a variety of forms, such as the folding model, sliding model and touch model. The folding and sliding models are sold in North Korea, but most of the touch model phones are ones that have been brought into the country by North Koreans traveling abroad for business. Even South Korean brands such as Samsung and LG can be seen on the streets of Pyongyang, although the majority of mobile phones are Chinese brands such as Huawei or ZTE. The Apple iPhone has yet to infiltrate the North Korean market.
The purchase price of the handset includes the registration fee. North Korean mobile phones can be bought and registered for around US$200. The chips are of the pay-as-you-go type, and the minimum spend is 3000 North Korean won. There is a free monthly allowance of 200 minutes and 20 texts. Top-ups come at 4.2 cents per minute or US$8.4 for 200 minutes. Those who don’t need so many minutes can pay 3000 North Korean won without purchasing extra minutes, as 200 minutes and 20 texts can serve adequately.
For many North Koreans, US$200 dollars is a big investment so some are afraid to make the initial purchase. Once it is made however, it is easy to keep using the mobile phone. This partly accounts for the number of North Korean mobile phones shooting up in recent times. At the time of writing, the number of mobile phone registrants is around 800,000. Nevertheless, there are always around 300,000 more users in actual number.
This is because there are so-called special registrants which the North Korean authorities do not allow Orascom to administrate for, out of security reasons. As a condition for Orascom being granted a license for mobile communications, an exclusive system not accessible to Orascom was also established. In this system were registered Central Party members as well as other military and government officials.
The first digits of these special registrants’ numbers are different. Orascom numbers begin 191(193)-2xx-xxxx, while special registrants’ numbers begin 195-xxx-xxxx. In addition, special registrants start with 300 free minutes and 30 free texts. Moreover, Central Party officials receive 100 extra minutes extra per minimum purchase.
The privileges do not end there. Ordinary North Koreans have to pay US$8.4 for a 200 minute top-up, but officials only need to pay 840 North Korean won. According to the current exchange rates, this is merely a token charge.