Increased cell phone use is often reported as an indicator of change in North Korea. In fact, usage has risen to the point that in Pohang, a wealthier area of Chongjin, it is common to see teenagers carrying cell phones.
But as is often the case with North Korea, general first impressions are very different from the subtle realities of the situation.
Though cell phones are expensive in North Korea, call quality is low. Communications equipment often fails to work properly due to the weak and erratic electricity supply. When a signal tower develops a fault, the authorities charged with the expense of making repairs are known for passing the responsibility on to another department.
Expense and faulty infrastructure are bad enough, but the biggest obstacle for users is the miserly allocation of call time. Choi Mi-young*, who left North Korea at the end of 2012, explains.
“To use cell phones in North Korea, you need to pay in advance. At the basic rate, you get 200 minutes of call time. If you go over that, your cell phone is disconnected. Even if you use the phone sparingly, it’s hard to make the allowance last even 15 days.”
It is difficult for North Koreans to cope with a limited amount of speaking time, especially as topping-up requires possession of foreign currency.
“In order to speak more, the only option is to top-up the phone using foreign currency (such as Chinese yuan or US dollars). Since the phone company doesn’t accept North Korean won, you need to get a foreign currency card if you want to add minutes. And as you can imagine, that’s really expensive.”
North Korean officials take advantage of this situation to push their subordinates into topping-up their bosses’ phones for free.
“Officials often makes comments like, ‘It’s so hard to make decent phone calls, I really need a top-up,’ in front of their subordinates. To please their superiors and to buy better treatment, the subordinates voluntarily top-up the officials’ phones with their own money. It’s a new kind of bribery that the cell phone culture has facilitated.”
“That is why officials can show off on the street by talking on the phone for a long time. The rest of us have to make our point and quickly hang up, but the officials are not restricted in the same way because they can exploit their position. Ownership of a cell phone divides between poor and rich, but the difference is even bigger in terms of the allocation of call time.”
Of course, if workers are having to spend what little money they have topping-up officials’ phones, they can’t afford to top-up their own.
With regard to the extortion by officials in the sphere of cell phone minutes, Kim Mi-young from Pyongyang – who left North Korea earlier this year – describes an eye-opening phenomenon.
“In Pyongyang, people refer to the topping-up of officials’ cell phones as a ‘suck-up charge’ while ordinary civilians call a top-up for their own cell phones a ‘load’. This refers to the loading of a bullet into a gun, with the underlying meaning that the cell phone has finally been made useful.
‘Topping-up’ has essentially become a word used by people who can afford luxury, namely the officials. So a ‘top-up’ is understood to be an offering to the officials.”
Choi corroborates, “It’s a joke that has come about through the attempt to popularize cell phones in a Republic of Bribery like North Korea. In North Korea, it’s hard enough to buy a cell phone, but it’s even harder to keep one.
South Koreans show off with designer items, and cell phones do the same job in North Korea. So plenty of people carry around a cell phone that doesn’t work or that they can’t actually afford to use. It’s very much a bragging item.”