If you’re planning on traveling to North Korea sometime soon – and why wouldn’t you be? — then there’s some good news, as it appears that foreigners are now being allowed to keep hold of their mobile phones, and even make calls over the domestic telephone network.
According to Young Pioneer Tours, one of several travel agencies that work in the country, on one of their latest trips the authorities allowed them to keep hold of their phones. Of course, the phones will be useless without a North Korean SIM card — but according to “an Egyptian engineer” who spoke to the Xinhua news agency, westerners will be able to buy and use one for just €50 (£41.91).
As long as there have been mobile phones, the North Korean authorities have been confiscating them from tourists. As foreigners either crossed the border by train, or landed in Pyongyang airport, guards would search through their belongings and take out anything that looked like a communications device. Smartphones, or anything with GPS capability, would be put into a separate, thick metal box (presumably to stop it being able to track where it was taken). The phones are returned as tourists leave the country, often with evidence of having been tampered with.
North Korea has extensive 3G coverage as a result of its deal with Egypt’s Orascom, and there are reportedly around 1.5 million mobile phones users in the country. It might be tempting to see this as a kind of “opening up”, and in some way linked to Eric Schmidt’s recent trip to the country, but it’s important to note that tourists have long been able to make international calls from the payphones inside hotels. Most North Koreans will still never make a phone call to another country — what’s good for tourists and curious investors is not necessarily good for the ordinary people.
It does mean, however, that if you visit Pyongyang now you won’t have to bring along a separate alarm or watch. You’ll also be able to show off your apps, something that North Koreans are very much keen on — not only does the country have its own tablet computers, but iPads are a common sight among the more well-connected of the elite residents of the Hermit Kingdom. It’s unlikely, however, that they’ll have permission to connect them to the web and get full use of them, like browsing maps of the prison camps that dot the country’s interior that tourists will never see.