No shorthand yet in North Korean text messaging 

Wednesday 22nd July, 2015

North Korean cell phone usage soared partly due to its popularity with the younger generation. When they first appeared in North Korea, the phones were used to conduct informal market activities. Now they are regarded by some as an established status symbol among women and even students.

Kim Chul-Hyun is a high school student who escaped his hometown in Musan, in August 2013. “In my school, I saw kids getting bullied by other kids for not having access to a cell phone. Cell phones are a means of communicating, so those who don’t have one get left out when they can’t be reached. One of my friends finally got a cell phone after insisting that he must get one even if it means he had to skip meals for a few days.”

He said, “Emoji, abbreviations and new words aren’t used in text messaging, as you see with young people in South Korea today. Text messages are written with care in the same register one is expected to formally speak in, properly and without error.”

Lee is a refugee who said he became familiar with phone text language after coming to South Korea, where he frequently messages his friends. “Using abbreviations and new words is so convenient. The implied meaning of certain words or emoji makes communication easier and fun. If this sort of writing were to become known in North Korea, the day may come when everyone in North Korea sends text messages the way South Koreans do it,” he said.

Cell phones have also served as a status symbol, puchasing the handset being akin to the purchase of designer label handbags. Instead of buying the most basic device, those who want to show off will go to great lengths to buy handsets imported from China, simply to take calls in public places and be envied by strangers on the street.

Although the everyday users of cell phones remain businesspeople and market traders, defector testimonies reveal that the most recent users include North Korean youth. They say it is no longer regarded a strange thing to see students carrying cell phones in the streets of the major cities.

That said, the spread of mobile technology does not simply lead to open communications, not least with the authorities making use of it for surveillance also.


Reporting by Park, Ju-Hee.

Read in Korean.

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