North Korea: Increased Cell Phone Usage Signals Change

“As much as technology is an instrument of control, connecting people to outside influences is bound to accelerate cultural changes.”

These words are those of Christopher Mims, contributor to the Wall Street Journal, who, after closely observing and researching the mysterious North Korean lifestyle and the manner in which its citizens and government utilize technology at the moment, sees that even though Internet and cell phone usage in North Korea is limited, it is becoming more available and thereby allowing its heavily controlled public to learn more about many facets of the world community. More importantly, it is allowing North Koreans to equate global Internet communication with success.

It is no secret that North Korea’s society is one that is strictly enforced and falls under the mystical Kim dynasty’s cult of personality, thereby maintaining ultimate control. However, since the ascension of Kim Jong-un in 2011, a more forward-thinking approach to technology has been introduced. Well, as forward-thinking as can be expected in North Korea. As the BBC has recently indicated, the Kim dynasty heavily bases its governmental structure on ancient Chinese dynasties and follows many of the rules and regulations which were set in place during ancient times.

For this reason, melded with the intentions to keep citizens from being influenced by outside sources from beyond the North Korean border, the Kim dynasty initially kept cell phones and smart phones away from the hands of its people. Anyone who formerly has been provided with one had only access to offline content and apps that were added by the North Korean government, thereby not truly allowing a connection with the rest of the world and global markets.

North Korean soldiers march to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kim dynasty, The Guardian

As the Daily Mail UK reported back when Kim Jong-il was still the nation’s leader, “The brutal communist regime, which is technically at war with South Korea, warned its 24 million population that any contact with the nation south of its borders is a crime punishable by life in prison or death.”

However, over the recent years, more allowances have been made in regards to cell phone and Internet access. Initially, cell phones were banned completely until North Korea succeeded in creating its own network in 2008. The greatest usage increase came between the years of 2012 and 2013, when numbers of North Koreans using cell phones and smart phones “doubled to two million from one million, and it now may exceed 2.5 million.”

As Mims indicates after hearing directly 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, North Korea is giving more people access to the Internet. “That apparently is happening, though in a controlled fashion, at ‘Internet palaces,’ where access is closely monitored.”

Mims relays the difficulties Behr discovered that North Korean IT programmers and manufacturers face in succeeding alongside their international competitors.”The problem is that, lacking access to the Internet, many of the entrepreneurs Behr encountered didn’t understand how to reach consumers — or even what a marketplace is.”

Behr, over the time he was within North Korea, came to realize that the nation is at a difficult point in regards to manufacturing and lacks the capital necessary to extract its natural resources in order to make them available for profit. Behr, however, communicated with many IT programmers within North Korea and aided in opening their eyes to how useful a global community is to improving and outsourcing labor to foreign companies. Behr therein made the IT industry aware of the fact that by limiting their contact with the global market, they are only getting a tiny portion of an expansive pie which they could have access to.

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.

Kim Jong-un greeted by supporters, The Entire Post Kim Jong-un greeted by supporters, via the Entire Post

Although Kim Jong-un continues to rule North Korea with an iron fist, much as his predecessors did, Mims notes an interesting point, stating that “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.” The increased number of smart phone users over such a short period of time and the availability of the Internet (though controlled) to its citizens, indicates improvements for the better are being made, no matter how minuscule.

[Feature image courtesy of the Global Post]