After years of cracking down on consumer tech, North Korea’s starting to flirt with the idea of embracing new technology. But, like many the egocentric suitor, it's only doing so on its own terms.
The latest pursuit came this weekend, when the the DPRK's state-run TV network showed Kim Jong-un at a factory inspecting what's reportedly North Korea's first smartphone. Only, there’s a strong chance the phone won't connect to the internet, and it probably wasn't made in North Korea either.
The Korean Central News Agency hyped the visit nonetheless, reporting that the supreme leader “highly appreciated the creative ingenuity and patriotic enthusiasm with which the officials and employees of the factory laid a solid foundation for mass-producing hand phones." He commented “how nice to see hand phones being successfully produced with indigenous technology," and lauded its significance "in making people love Korean things.”
But experts suspect the phone is actually manufactured in China, then secretly transported over the border and inspected in North Korea, to give the appearance the phone was nationally made. Workers in the photos are shown with finished products, inspecting them and testing, but not doing any manufacturing, North Korea Tech reported. Meanwhile, Jong-un boasted how “mass-production of goods with DPRK trademark can instill national pride and self-respect into the Korean people."
At this point precious little is known about the smartphone itself—only that it's Android-based, has a "camera with high pixels," and is named the “Arirang” after a patriotic Korean folk song. Still there’s plenty of reason to doubt that the devices will be able to go online.
For one, the country has an iron-clad grip on internet access. A select few North Koreans outside of the government or the military access to the World Wide Web. They have instead an internal intranet, the Kwangmyong, that's accessible via dial-up, and serves up a handful of pre-approved, state-controlled websites. Last month, when a tourist got his hands on a North Korean Android-based tablet, he noticed the web browser connected to the internal intranet only.
There's only one internet service provider in North Korea and it's also controlled by the state. Right now 3G data plans are forbidden, except to foreigners living in the Republic. In February, North Korea briefly opened up 3G access to tourists, but shut it down only a month later.
But like a forbidden fruit, North Koreans are crazy about cell phones. About a million lucky ones own them now—mostly people living near the Chinese border that can smuggle them in. The number of subscribers to the “Koryolink,” the country's only mobile network, doubled in just over a year and is now at 2 million.
That could be one of the reasons that North Korea has not only warmed to the idea of allowing smartphones and tablets, but is going so far as to laud it as a patriotic act. Like parents who say "if you're going to drink, at least do it at home," if people are going to have mobile phones, better be stamped with a government seal of approval. "Presumably it's designed to allow the government to monitor or at least prevent any infiltration of the national information cordon," wrote the Washington Post.
There's also the chance that the new 29-year-old leader is just a bigger tech geek than his predecessor. He's been seen carrying a cell phone, and has remarked more than once about embracing technology to help the economy. It's nice to think that's the case, and that the new smartphone of is a sign of progress in the secluded country. But it seems to me more like a small concession with a big PR payoff. If the Arirang phone is similar to the Samjiyon tablet, it'll lack any Google apps, wi-fi, and internet. At least there's Angry Birds.