Foreigners visiting North Korea will not be able to rent mobile phones following a government order that could be linked to concerns over information flow about pro-democracy protests raging in Arab states.
Quoting visitors to the reclusive country, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported on Monday that North Korea had suspended rental of mobile phones to foreigners since January.
Some visitors, however, quoted North Korean officials as saying the country unofficially decided to suspend the service late last year because of a change in the communications system, Kyodo said.
As of Tuesday, North Korea's official media has yet to report on the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as protests elsewhere in Arab states.
A popular uprising in January led to the toppling of Tunisia's president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, triggering a domino effect with the overthrow of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and pro-democracy uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya.
Pyongyang is believed to be wary of the inflow and circulation of information from abroad that may lead to a call for regime change in the country, prompting speculation the suspension of the mobile phone rental service may last for a long time, Kyodo reported.
Some experts said that the current bloody revolt against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi especially may pose some concerns to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.
Looked at through the lens of the South Korean experience, Seo Jeong Min, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said, "Libya can be seen as in between South Korea's ... dictatorship of the 1960s and North Korea," according to The Daily NK, which reports on North Korean issues.
"As such, the similarities are sufficient that if the Gadhafi system collapses, it will be a source of jitters in Pyongyang, and could have an effect on the more worldly of North Korean cadres," said the Seoul-based online news site created by activists from the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights.
North Korea and Libya may have some similarities.
Gadhafi took power in 1969 and wields the most absolute power among leaders of the autocratic Arab states. Before the bloody protests seeking his ouster, he was said to be planning to hand power down to his son.
Kim, ailing and supreme leader of one of the world's most isolated states, is trying to smooth the path for a third generation of family rule.
In terms of communication links, young Libyans can and do utilize social sites like Facebook, and people also use cell phones to exchange information.
While it is true that North Koreans cannot access the Internet freely, a 3G mobile phone network exists thanks to Orascom Telecom Holding S.A.E, an Egyptian company that provides cellular phone service in a joint venture with Korea Posts and Telecommunications Corp.
Orascom hopes to have 90 percent of North Korean citizens subscribe to the service, and notes that the number of voice and text message users is continuously increasing, according to Daily NK.
If Libya "were to collapse, the sense of crisis within the North Korean leadership would be bound to increase," it said.
North Korean authorities ban foreign visitors, including diplomats, from bringing mobile phones into the country and routinely seize their phones at Pyongyang airport or elsewhere and return them as they leave the country.
Until last year, foreign visitors were allowed to rent mobile phones capable of making international calls, but Kyodo reported that recent visitors quoted North Korean officials as saying the country has restricted rentals to foreign residents only since January.
North Korea began mobile phone rentals for foreigners in late 2008 but the rental phones for foreigners cannot be connected to more than 600,000 handsets of domestic users, while domestic users cannot make international calls, Kyodo said.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.