[THE INVESTOR] Recent data showed more North Koreans are now using mobile phones than before with the number of subscribers reaching nearly 5 million as of this year.
In line with this trend, the smartphone penetration rate in one of the most reclusive nations is also on the rise, and surprisingly Samsung Electronics’ Galaxy is one of the most popular smartphone brands among North Korean consumers, according to sources.
“There are quite a number of North Koreans who are using Galaxy smartphones,” Yang Un-chul, vice president of Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul, told The Investor, citing North Korean defectors whom he has interviewed.
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The Samsung devices, as well as all types of South Korean goods, are banned in the nation, but they are available on the black market at high prices, according to the expert.
The regime’s restrictions on imported goods, especially those from the South and the US, are still in place, but they are not as effective or strict as before since people there have become more accustomed to free-market rules, he explained.
“It is not about whether they can get their hands on the Samsung smartphones, but about if they can afford to buy,” he said.
North Korea is collaborating with a Chinese firm to roll out smartphones in the country. It purchases smartphones at US$50 per unit from the Chinese smartphone manufacturer and sells them to its people at US$250, which has become an important income source for the nation. Those phones are equipped with an application that blocks internet access, aimed at limiting free flow of news and information.
Smuggled Samsung or LG mobile phones with Chinese USIM cards, on the other hand, allow users to make calls and send text messages to their families abroad, including those who have defected to the South.
In addition, exchanging photos between separated families, which was extremely difficult in the pre-smartphone era, does not require much effort anymore thanks to mobile messengers such as WeChat, Telegram and KakaoTalk.
“South Korean mobile products and home appliances, which outgun those made by Japanese and Chinese firms in popularity, are sold at a premium as they support the Korean language and boast great quality,” a North Korean defector surnamed Cho said.
To avoid punishment for using South Korean products, North Koreans replace the brand logos of South Korean products with those of Japanese or Chinese firms, or put a country of origin label that says “Made in Japan,” or “Made in China.”
According to a news report by NK News, Koryolink, a joint venture established in 2008 by the North Korean authorities and Egyptian telecom firm Orascom, runs a network that allows mobile communication only between North Koreans, and a separate one used only for the foreigners residing in the reclusive nation. A network for exclusive communication among those at the top also exists.
Digital devices made by Samsung’s archrival Apple and other American electric gadgets are something that many rich people in North Korea seem to desire.
“The fact that Kim Jung-un is a big fan of Apple says it all,” said a professor in Seoul, citing a string of photos and news reports that showed the current North Korean leader using Apple products, including MacBook and iMac, as did his late father and former leader Kim Jong-il.
“Similar to Soviet Union elite in the past, the rich and privileged North Koreans tend to want to buy luxury goods,” the professor said.
By Kim Young-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A video clip of North Korea's Arirang smartphone: