Chinese Border Shops Market Cheap Cell Phones to North Koreans

nk-cell-phone-store-dandong-1000.jpg A store in Dandong which claims to offer cheap cell phones compatible with North Korea's telecom network, in an undated photo.

Shops are springing up in Chinese cities bordering North Korea which specialize in cheap cell phones that operate on the restricted telecommunications network of the impoverished hermit kingdom, where handset costs are well beyond the reach of average citizens.

But despite the low cost of the phones, North Koreans are balking at purchasing them, citing extra costs associated with bribing border officials to get them back across the border and a complicated registration process, sources said.

As cell phone use in the North becomes more popular, shops have begun to appear in Chinese border cities targeting North Koreans who frequently travel there for shopping, a source living in Dandong, in China’s Liaoning province, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Stores dealing in cell phones which can be used in North Korea, and repair shops to fix [broken North Korean] cell phones have recently opened in Dandong” the source said.

There are various types of cell phones available at the stores, the source said, including “bar” type phones which sell for around U.S. $55, folding phones that fetch about U.S. $80, and touch smartphones which go for U.S. $130, according to the source.

Similar types of cell phones are sold in North Korea for more than twice the price—around U.S. $150, $200 and $300 respectively—unaffordable for most North Koreans in rural areas and smaller cities who struggle to earn enough to provide their families with adequate food to eat.

In spite of the low cost and good quality of the cell phones at the stores in Chinese border towns, the source said, North Korean travelers are largely window shopping, and not readily purchasing them.

He said that prospective buyers are concerned about trying to illegally bring the phones back through customs, as well as the complex process of registering them with authorities for use once they return to North Korea.

Extra costs

A North Korean of Chinese descent told RFA that the cell phone store owners in China had banked on visitors from the North taking advantage of cheap prices, but hadn’t counted on the extra costs associated with owning a Chinese cell phone.

“This story started with people who don’t know about the real situation inside North Korea,” he said.

The source explained that even when citizens of North Korea purchase legal cell phones within the country, it is nearly impossible to register them without bribing relevant officials.

Other sources said that while it’s hard for ordinary residents of North Korea to buy Chinese cell phones and bring them across the border, “professional sellers,” who have connections in customs and the money to bribe authorities, can earn good money in the trade.

A second source living in Dandong told RFA that another group of businessmen make their profits collecting broken handsets from North Korea—where replacement parts are expensive and hard to come by—and bringing them to shops across the border for repair.

“Many intermediary merchants who collect numerous broken [North Korean] handsets are regular customers for the cell phone repair shops which display signs reading ‘Pyongyang Telecom’ near the customs office in Dandong,” the source said.

‘Homegrown’ tech

Since August last year, 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 “homegrown technology” were met with skepticism in the West, where observers said the phone uses a Google Android-based operating system.

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 Jina Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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