Chinese mobile phones still dominate in North Korea

Friday 23rd August, 2013
The new 'Arirang' handset recently unveiled by North Korea.

The new ‘Arirang’ handset recently unveiled by North Korea.

The North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) recently unveiled the “Arirang” smartphone. Western media reports followed up by arguing how this new technology could not have been manufactured by North Korean efforts alone.

In fact, Chinese mobile phones have been used by North Koreans for at least fifteen years. Before that time, in order to smuggle goods across the border from China, North Koreans would meet with their Chinese counterparts at the river bank and shout across the water.

“It was very relaxed, we would agree on how such and such an item would be brought at a certain time on a certain day. That was it. The border guards weren’t really concerned back then. If a patrol appeared while we were talking to the Chinese, we’d move a little ways apart. When the guards left, we’d reconvene to finish scheduling our next meeting,” explained Hyesan native Jung, who left North Korea in 2011.

When the “Arduous March” began in the mid-90s and North Korea suffered from famine and a collapse of the state distribution system, those near the border started smuggling more extensively. At the same time, border security tightened considerably.

“Even lingering near the river bank would draw the border guards’ attention. In order to continue smuggling goods across the border, it became compulsory to own a mobile phone. This way, you could communicate from a hidden place without making yourself conspicuous.”

“At the time, the flip phone was very popular in China. Chinese traders would bribe guards with cigarettes or a box of food, in order to deliver Chinese mobile phones into North Korea. The Chinese have led the way,” Jung continued.

“They would write out instructions for how to use the mobile phone on a piece of paper and sent it along with the device. Though the phone probably had other functions, as long as we could make a call and receive a call, that was all we needed to know. The things that the Chinese traders would demand in return were metal products such as gold and silver, or medicinal herbs.”

Credibility is an important asset when it comes to smuggling, and there may be times when the numbers don’t add up in a transaction. Such matters too are often ironed about by means of a phone call. In addition, On Lunar New Year’s Day or birthdays, some Chinese traders make a call to their North Korean counterparts to let them know they are sending oil or fruit – free of charge.

“Without the relationship maintained by means of a mobile phone, we could never dream of smuggling anything. The mobile phone is a life-line to border traders.”

By around 2000, a North Korean mobile phone user could connect with someone in South Korea. For example, as countless North Korean women were captured for repatriation in China, they moved to South Korea in larger numbers. As they settled in their new home, these women kept up ties with ethnic-Koreans living in China, and then with cross-border smugglers.

South Koreans pass on the address of their North Korean family members to ethnic-Koreans living in China. These Korean Chinese make a phone call to their North Korean trader, asking them to reach a North Korean family member. Even those living far away from the border may be reached in this way. They then make their way to the border.

“On the border, security agents patrol the river banks with signal detection vehicles. It’s extremely risky to make a call in the area. In North Korea, mobile phones are kept off by default. They keep watch, and once the agents move away, they make a call from a hole, originally dug to store kimchi during the winter.”

Most North Koreans living near the border with China know about Chinese flip phones. Will the recently unveiled North Korean smartphone set a new trend?

“A few days ago, I spoke with my younger brother who is still in North Korea. He still did not know what a smartphone was. The average North Korean uses a Chinese mobile phone. North Korean mobile phones can only be used within North Korea, so they are not as versatile. My brother told me, why would he buy an expensive North Korean handset when he can go to the post office and pay a small fee to make a local call?”

Jung added, “I doubt whether the release of North Korean made smartphones would help North Koreans in practical ways. It’s the Chinese mobile phone that has sustained the North Korean economy for over fifteen years.”

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