How China Is Powering North Korea’s Smartphone Mania

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North Korea has a new problem on its hands besides poverty and reported bouts of famine – Kim Jong Il’s new enemy is cellphones.

Wired reports that North Korea now sports 450,000 users on its cell phone network. While those numbers may not seem like much to the rest of the world, it is a 50 percent increase from last year. It’s probably not a far guess that the majority of users are probably the country’s elite. Nor surprisingly, the network doesn’t let citizens dial outside the country or access the internet.

Pyongyang has begun cracking down on any unauthorized devices, said to done out of fear given the recent protests in the Middle East. The government has called upon citizens to account for all gadgets that they own. Technology access is far from broadly available from the general public. Yes, that’s a life without cell phones, television and internet.

The New York Times has reported that people are using the technology to do more than just get in contact with disconnected family members abroad, but to provide information to intelligence agencies. Whether it is broadly effective remains questionable, because the use of the cellphone network is so limited.

In times of need, North Korea, an outsider to the rest of the world, has increasingly relied on Beijing for aid. China, in turn, may be adding to North Korea’s growing mess. It has been estimated that about one thousand North Koreans have smuggled phones from across the North Korea-China border. If you’re close enough, you might even be able to get the internet by snagging a signal from one of China’s networks.

The intensely prohibitive country is still largely a mystery to the outside world. Visitors can only enter the country by joining a monitored government-arranged tour group. Often monitored around-the-clock by a group of “minders,” any rule-breaking can be met with harsh punishment, including death.

Everything involving gadgetry, from taking “appropriate” photos on your camera to bringing your smartphone along, is intensely scrutinized. In January, North Korea stopped issuing phone rentals to tourists, which given the country’s sociopolitical environment, could be considered a special privilege in itself.

(via Wired)

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