North Korea loosens restrictions on foreign mobile phones
A North Korean woman uses a mobile phone in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: AP
North Korea is loosening some restrictions on foreign mobile phones by allowing visitors to bring their own devices into the country. However, security regulations still prohibit mobile phone calls between foreigners and locals.
For years, North Korea required visitors to relinquish foreign mobiles at the border until their departure, leaving many tourists without an easy way to communicate with the outside world.
As the world becomes increasingly connected, the North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth.Eric Schmidt, Google executive chairman
The ritual of handing over phones was part of an exhaustive security check that most visitors face at immigration in North Korea. Many foreigners — including Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, who travelled to North Korea earlier this month — choose to leave their phones behind in Beijing before flying to Pyongyang.
Now, foreigners can bring wideband, WCDMA-compatible mobile phones into the country or rent a local handset at the airport, and purchase a local SIM card for use in North Korea. The SIM card allows them to call most foreign countries, foreign embassies in Pyongyang and international hotels in the North Korean capital, according to Ryom Kum Dan of 3G mobile service provider Koryolink.
Mobile phones rent for about $US3.50 a day and SIM cards cost about $US67, while satellite phones are prohibited, she said.
However, foreigners will not be able to communicate by mobile phone with local North Koreans, whose phones operate on a separate network, and they will not have access to the internet using locally provided SIM cards. They can phone Japan and the US, but not South Korea.
Mobile use has multiplied in North Korea since Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom built a 3G network in North Korea four years ago. More than a million people are using mobiles in the country, according to Orascom, which runs Koryolink as part of a joint venture with North Korea's telecommunications ministry CHEO Technology.
The 3G network also provides North Koreans with access to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper for a fee, but not to the world wide web.
On Friday, Koryolink saleswomen were setting up mobile phone rental booths at Pyongyang's Sunan airport. One poster depicting a woman in a traditional Korean dress with a phone pressed to her ear read: "Here You Can Buy Koryolink Visitor Line."
During his recent four-day trip to North Korea, Schmidt urged North Korea to provide its people with better access to the global internet. The Google executive chairman noted it would be "very easy" for North Korea to offer internet on the 3G network.
"As the world becomes increasingly connected, the North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically," he wrote in a Google blog entry posted on Sunday.
"It is their choice now, and in my view, it's time for them to start, or they will remain behind."