North Korea Opens Mobile Internet to Foreigners

2013-02-25
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North Korean girls use mobile phones in a park in Pyongyang, Sept. 22, 2010.
AFP

North Korea has allowed foreigners access to the Internet via the reclusive country’s mobile phone network, but is keeping the service off limits to its own citizens.

Tourists and foreigners living in North Korea are now able to purchase mobile SIM cards and USB modems allowing them to connect to the Internet via a 3G network run by Koryolink, which operates the country’s domestic mobile phone services.

Officials told the Associated Press last week that foreigners would have mobile access to the global Internet by the end of the month.

North Koreans, however, will be allowed to access only certain 3G services, including SMS and MMS messaging and video calls. They will be able to subscribe to reports via their mobile phones from the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

On Monday, China’s Xinhua news agency said its correspondent had become the first foreigner to surf the Internet from a cell phone inside North Korea, with the journalist reporting that the new service is fast and “unrestricted.”

An Associated Press reporter has begun tweeting from Pyongyang and has posted a photo that is believed to be the first Instagram from a cell phone inside the country: a sepia-toned image of street-side propaganda poster praising scientists for their work on this month’s nuclear test.

Google visit

But with 3G web access limited to foreigners, the new service will not have North Korea’s growing number of mobile phone subscribers posting photos on the social media networks popular in the rest of the world unless access is opened up further.

Pyongyang’s new Internet policy follows a visit to North Korea last month by Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who said he had urged officials to open up the Internet and that it would be “very easy” for North Korea to enable 3G access to the public on the existing service.

The government maintains an iron grip on information in North Korea, where citizens are punished for accessing foreign radio and other media or for using smuggled cell phones that operate on Chinese networks across the border.

Subscribers to Koryolink, which is a joint venture with Egyptian company Orascom, has grown to some 1.8 million subscribers since launching phone services in 2008.

But owning a cell phone is still a luxury in North Korea, with a basic Chinese-made Huawei mobile phone sold by Koryolink costing about U.S. $150, a huge sum for most of the country’s 24 million people.

The decision to allow foreigners access to the 3G Internet comes weeks after officials began allowing foreigners to bring their own cell phones into the country to use with Koryolink SIM cards.

North Korea is selling data to foreigners for the equivalent of between U.S. $50 to $100 per gigabyte, plus a fee for a USB modem or SIM card and a monthly U.S. $13 SIM card charge, according to Xinhua.

Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.