North Korean Traders Scramble for Smartphones From South

2013-11-15
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Samsung smartphones on display at a store in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 7, 2011.
Samsung smartphones on display at a store in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 7, 2011.
AFP

North Korean traders who have long relied on Chinese cell phones to conduct cross-border business are increasingly turning to more expensive South Korean-made models, citing language compatibility and clearer calls, according to sources.

The traders seek South Korean smartphones such as Samsungs and LGs, which cost double the price of similar Chinese-made models, so that they can type and text in Korean and because they believe the devices provide better quality reception, the sources in North Korea said.

Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea, which operates a restricted domestic cell phone network that does not allow international calls, have long underpinned a thriving illicit border trade between the two countries.

The foreign phones are banned by Pyongyang, but North Koreans use them covertly to connect to Chinese reception towers near the border and organize deliveries and payment for goods.

Now, preferences for phones made by globally popular South Korean electronics giants such as Samsung and LG indicate the traders’ taste in cell phones is becoming more sophisticated.

A Chinese source who works with North Korean traders told RFA’s Korean Service that most North Korean traders in China are now using Samsung smartphones.

Chinese-made phones don’t support Korean-language functionalities, but with South Korean models the traders can send text messages in Chinese, English, or Korean, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The South Korean-made phones they use are models released for use in China, not South Korea, where the cell phone network operates on a technology mostly incompatible with China’s or North Korea’s networks.

Double the cost

Chinese dealers often provide cell phones for the North Korean traders they work with to facilitate their operations.  

One Chinese dealer surnamed Liu said the five North Korean traders working under him were pestering him to replace their Chinese-brand phones with Samsungs or LGs.  

But he was reluctant to do so because the costs were so high, said the merchant, who is based in China’s Dandong city across the border from North Korea’s Sinuiju.

“I’m in an embarrassing situation because the North Korean traders are pushing me too far about changing their cell phones to South Korean smartphones,” he told RFA.

Buying the low-end Chinese smartphones would cost him about U.S. $160 each, but a South Korean-brand model released around the same time would run double the price, he said.

The North Korean traders are eager for even old models of South Korean-brand phones so that they can type in Korean and get better reception, he said.

Domestic network restricted

Since August, North Korea has had its own smartphone, the AS1201 Arirang, which works in the Korean language, according to announcements in state media.  

But the state-produced device is made for use on the domestic network Koryolink, which does not allow international calls or access to mobile Internet.

Statements in North Korean state media claiming that the Arirang was manufactured using “home-grown technology” were met with skepticism in the West, where observers said the phone uses a Google Android-based operating system.

North Korea maintains its own intranet and bans access to the World Wide Web for all but the super-elite.

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.

But use is growing fast, with some 2 million North Koreans subscribing to Koryolink since it launched in 2008 as a joint venture with Egyptian company Orascom.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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