Despite its poverty and increasingly unreliable electricity supply North Korea has eagerly adopted the cell phone, often for uses the government forbids. For example, North Korea tried to keep forbidden media (South Korean and Chinese videos and music) off North Korean cell phones by installing a tracking and authentication software on North Korean smartphones (the only ones most North Koreans could own). This app was mandatory and police can check for it any time they want. If the app is not there you go to prison camp or pay the cop a large bribe.
Over the last few years, there have been a growing number of illegal apps developed by North Koreans to enable cell phone users to put forbidden media on their phones and play it without getting caught. This should not come as a surprise because North Korea has developed a formidable force of government trained hackers since the 1990s. A growing number of the official and unofficial (self-taught) hackers have secretly developed cell phone apps for all sorts of tasks, not just ones that circumvent the tracking and media access features of North Korean cell phones. These illegal apps also include stealth features that make it difficult for police to easily find that a phone has illegal media and tracking avoidance apps installed. There is an economic incentive for this because the police quickly found that they could make a lot of money by taking bribes from people caught with foreign content and illegal apps on their cell phones or any evidence that the cell phone was equipped to carry out an illegal task.
Police are supposed to seize cell phones found to contain illegal apps and content. Police quickly found that it was better for them if they took the bribe instead. Police could get away with this by meeting their quota of arrests and confiscations while waiting for the next bribery jackpot. For cell phone owners the bribe was potentially a matter of life or death. Labor camps are unhealthy places to be and spending a few years in one carries a high risk (30 percent or more depending on age and health) of death.
Officially the government is appalled at the persistence and spread of this illegal cell phone use. Privately, government officials are well aware of what is actually going on and can’t officially admit that the presence of cell phones, forbidden media and the spread of legal free markets (creating more North Koreans who can afford to pay bribes if caught) is undermining the control the government once exercised over the population. Worse, many of the cell phone pirates are children of the senior officials. That’s the one percent of the population that keeps the police state going. Occasionally the government will make an example of one of these ruling class kids caught with illegal content. But such punishment is bad for the morale of the key families and cannot be used frequently. The fact that such misbehavior persists and thrives is a sign that the North Korean police state is in trouble with no solution in sight. The fact is that cell phones have become essential items in North Korea and there is no going back on that.
Cell phone ownership rapidly increased over the last decade. At first, only a few thousand legal and many more illegal (Chinese) cell phones were in use. Now 70 percent of households have at least one cell phone and over four million cell phones are in use and about a quarter of those are illegal. The primary use of cell phones is communication, given the lack of private landline phones for most North Koreans and the unreliable electricity supply. North Korean users found that they by keeping their cell phones charged they would still have service during the increasingly frequent periods when there was no power. The growing use of solar panels by North Koreans is mainly for keeping the cell phones charged and a few electronic items working during power outages.
After long resisting the introduction of the more powerful smartphones North Korea finally relented in 2013. That was when North Korea announced that it had designed and begun manufacturing a smartphone (using the Android operating system). Foreign experts believed this was another publicity stunt and that the phones were actually manufactured to order from one of the many Chinese firms that do this. That proved to be the case and North Korea has never developed much of a local consumer electronics manufacturing capability. There are plenty of Chinese manufacturers willing to do the job cheaper than North Korea could manage. The North Korean smartphones are modified to make it more difficult for users to do unauthorized things like make international calls, access the Internet outside North Korea or use unauthorized apps. North Korea allows these phones to freely download approved apps, videos and music. By 2015 North Korea announced that users could download a digital version of a boring state-run publication; Rodong Sinmun. The only people who download it are government officials who believe it would be a mistake not to. The most popular downloads were illegal. Yet because the state monitors what is downloaded onto these smartphones an underground industry to provide illegal apps to get forbidden content on North Korean cell phones soon emerged. Much of the work on creating and distributing these illegal apps is done by volunteers, some of them state trained professional hackers. This is a truly disturbing development. It shows that in some ways North Korea is just like the more affluent developed nations. For North Korean leaders this is a very disturbing development.
Despite the high price of these North Korea smartphones (about $500 initially, in a country where GDP per capita is under $2,000) and soon there were over 300,000 users, many of them members of the new “donju” (entrepreneur class) who have made a lot of money operating legal markets. When the North Korea smartphones were introduced there were already over a million illegal cell phones, which can access the international Internet if near the Chinese border or a foreign wi-fi hotspot within North Korea. These hotspots are available in the North Korean capital. There, many embassies have taken to installing powerful wi-fi systems that can be easily used by nearby North Koreans. These wi-fi routers are set up so they do not need a password. Many embassies do this on purpose to allow news of the outside world to get into North Korea via an uncensored Internet link (usually via a satellite link).
The North Korean government allowed some access to the Internet as they introduced smartphones. In early 2014 North Korea expanded Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of these users only have access to the North Korean Internet, which is called “Bright.” This consists of a few thousand websites, all hosted within North Korea and mostly containing educational or propaganda material plus government announcements of importance. The news sites on Bright give the government version of the news. Discussion is permitted but constantly monitored for disloyalty. Bright is isolated from the international Internet and access to Internet sites outside North Korea is strictly monitored, as is email outside the country. Anyone who misuses either Bright or international Internet access is severely punished. Nevertheless, the North Korean government has tried to make their intranet more useful by posting information like train schedules, directories of government offices as well as commercial enterprises (like the growing number of restaurants). The existence of state-approved PCs and laptops also made it possible to easily transfer illegal content (via a USB cable) to smartphones. Progress comes at a price, often a price police states find are much higher than expected.
Such was the case with Internet access which made free embassy wi-fi networks so dangerous. There have been several instances of wealthy North Koreans moving to neighborhoods with an embassy wi-fi network just so they, and their kids, could have access to the web outside of North Korea. In particular, North Koreans want access to the growing number of Korean language websites, most of them in South Korea.
Meanwhile, the situation is quite different down south. South Korea was an early pioneer in making Internet access, especially high-speed service, available inexpensively and on a wide scale. In 2000 some 40 percent of South Koreans had Internet access and ten years later that had risen to 81 percent. Thus by 2005 over 95 percent of South Korean mobile phones had Internet access and by 2006 over half of home Internet users had high-speed access. Now all South Korean Internet users have high-speed access and the speeds are the highest in the world. Although an American firm (Apple) invented the modern smartphone in 2005, it was a South Korean firm (Samsung) that went on to become the world’s largest producer of smartphones. This did not go unnoticed in North Korea where people found out about Samsung and how fellow Koreans were dominant players in these new technologies. It’s illegal to even acknowledge such forbidden knowledge in North Korea but the northern government could not keep the news out or suppress the admiring reaction of many North Koreans. Samsung cell phones are very much forbidden in North Korea but getting one was considered one of the highest achievements of North Korea cell phone users.
North Koreans have noticed the abundance of Korean language Internet content down south. Those who can connect to get to these South Korean can use “grabber” apps (many of them available free) to download all the content on a website. This can then be passed around inside North Korea via a USB memory stick. The North Korean government does not like this sort of thing but so far has preferred to avoid international condemnation for cracking down on embassy Internet use or the growing illegal use of illegal cell phones and content. Yes, people are regularly arrested and sent to labor camps. The North Korea government cannot afford to imprison all the cell phone and content criminals it catches, much less the even larger number or avoid detection or arrest. It’s a war the North Korean government is losing but cannot even afford to talk about openly without admitting defeat and helplessness.