Used Desktop Computers ‘Selling Like Hotcakes’ in North Korea

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Students work on computers at the Kim Il Sung University library in Pyongyang on April 11, 2012.
Students work on computers at the Kim Il Sung University library in Pyongyang on April 11, 2012.

Used desktop computers smuggled in from China have become a much sought-after item in North Korea, where people hungry for tech skills can’t get enough of them, according to sources in the isolated country.

North Koreans are going to great lengths to acquire the secondhand computers—which are often cobbled together from discarded machines—running them on car batteries and hiding them from authorities in their homes, they said.

More affordable than laptops, the used desktops brought in by cross-border traders are a hot item on the black market, a source in North Hamgyong province said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Not only laptop computers but also desktop computers are very popular, so much so that there are simply not enough desktops to meet demand,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.

Learning computer skills

A source in Yanggang province, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that because of the popularity of desktops, cross-border smugglers who used to bring in used televisions from China are now concentrating on desktops instead.  

North Koreans are using the machines at home to teach themselves computer skills as well as to listen to music and watch videos, he said.

The source in North Hamgyong province said the computers are selling well among parents hoping to give their children a leg up in school, where computer classes that were once available only to high school and middle school students have been expanded into the elementary school curriculum.  

Computer repairmen are also benefiting from the desktop boom, making the lucrative occupation one that many North Koreans aspire to, he added.

“Computer repairmen are raking in huge profits because even used desktop computers that were previously ignored are now selling like hotcakes.”

Hard to hide

The desktops are not as desirable as laptop computers, which are easier to hide from the authorities.  

The government keeps 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. Authorities also conduct regular inspection raids for contraband computers.

But despite being difficult to conceal, desktops are more popular than laptops because they cost about half the price, although both are still a significant expense for most people in North Korea, according to the source in North Hamgyong.

Desktops sell on the black market—where Chinese currency is commonly used—for 600 to 1,500 yuan (U.S. $100 to $250), while the price of laptops ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (U.S. $300 to $500), he said.

The  average government worker’s monthly salary in North Korea is about 2,000 to 6,000 won (U.S. $0.70 to $2 based on prevailing market rates).

Power problems

The source in Yanggang province said that since many North Korean households have poor electricity connections, they often cannot use the computers without hooking them up to power sources that connect to car batteries and regular household batteries.

But the greater availability of such devices in recent years has allowed demand for the desktops to increase dramatically, he said.

Though slow, the computers usually work efficiently enough for users to learn computer skills, listen to music, or watch entertainment programs, he said.

Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.





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