Cellphones Can Spark Change in North Korea
Cellphones Can Spark Change in North Korea
An odd thing is happening in North Korea, and it may be happening faster than anyone anticipated.
Access to mobile technology has exploded, at least among those who can afford it. In the capital and other major cities, there are now two million or so people who lie between the urban elites, who have monopolized the country’s resources, and its desperately poor villagers.
The speed of this change isn’t often appreciated by outsiders, many of whom believe North Korea has progressed little from the mid-1990s, when famine killed as many as two million people.
This month marks the third anniversary of the ascension of Kim Jong Un, the country’s supreme leader. And though North Korea remains oppressive and its politics are opaque even to its own citizens, something must be happening at the highest levels, because nothing there changes without the government allowing it.
In a 14-month span between 2012 and 2013, the number of mobile-phone subscribers in North Korea doubled to two million from one million, and it now may exceed 2.5 million, according to Orascom Telecom Media & Technology Holding of Egypt, which provides cell service to North Korea in a joint venture with the government.
Just a fraction of those devices are smartphones—in 2013 the government said it would import 100,000 smartphones from China—and those owned by ordinary citizens can’t access the global Internet.
But North Korea, a country in which cellphones were banned until it built its own network in 2008, has become a place where it is common for teens to text one another, just as they do elsewhere, said Beijing-based Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea scholar and the executive director of the Chosun Exchange, which teaches young North Koreans about entrepreneurship.
At the same time, said Mr. Abrahamian, many medium-size businesses that are effectively taxpaying private enterprises are blossoming since legal changes were introduced in 2012.
“In the past the way to get ahead was a career in the party or government or military,” said Mr. Abrahamian. “Now there’s been a big social shift. It’s not only OK to be in business, now it’s desirable, because that’s how you can earn money and get ahead.”
There aren’t any reliable data on North Korea’s economy, so understanding the country is as often about collecting indirect measures and anecdotes.
Here’s one from Colin Behr, head of business development at ad-technology startup Vungle, who recently visited North Korea as part of an exchange set up by Chosun: One day at a restaurant in Pyongyang, he noticed his waitress taking a break on her phone. She was playing the North Korean version of “Plants vs. Zombies.”
North Korea’s smartphones and tablets, lacking Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and cut off from all data service save a handful of local news sources, are designed to work offline. They are loaded to the gills with apps including dictionaries, games, instructional texts and a national encyclopedia. Apps must be bought from a brick-and-mortar store controlled by the government, and an authentication mechanism through the 3G network deletes any unauthorized apps, says Mr. Behr.
Even so, North Korea has a nascent culture of programming and even startups. The problem is that, lacking access to the Internet, many of the entrepreneurs Mr. Behr encountered didn’t understand how to reach consumers—or even what a marketplace is.
Many programmers in North Korea work for companies that do contract work for Chinese companies. Many of those to whom Mr. Behr spoke didn’t understand the value they were creating by providing cheap labor to foreign companies that transformed it into finished products such as apps.
“But once they understood they’re just getting a tiny slice of the pie, that was quite eye-opening,” he said.
North Korea is at a crossroads. Its manufacturing base is outdated and a shadow of its former self. Extracting the country’s natural resources requires capital it doesn’t have. But its people take education as seriously as their South Korean counterparts, and IT labor has the advantage of requiring little in the way of upfront investment.
The country already has a tradition of engineering, with an active research university devoted to coding and software. And it is rumored to have a college of cyber warfare.
Leveraging this expertise to create a tech industry would require North Korea to give more people access to the Internet. That apparently is happening, though in a controlled fashion, at “Internet palaces,” where access is closely monitored, said Mr. Behr.
We have seen time and again what comes in the wake of increased access to the Internet. As much as technology is an instrument of control, connecting people to outside influences is bound to accelerate cultural changes.