Authorities in North Korea, who tightly regulate the flow of information, appear to be allowing foreign travelers to send and receive emails abroad using mobile devices linked to the Internet, according to a North Korean visiting China.
The source said he had received an email from a foreign colleague who had used his smartphone to send it while accessing the Internet during a visit to the capital Pyongyang.
The content of the email was short and included a signature which indicated that it had been sent from an Apple iPhone.
He said that many nationals from other countries are permitted to bring their own smartphones with them into North Korea and have been able to use the Internet without purchasing SIM cards from local telecom carrier Koryolink to access the company’s 3G network.
“Some of the foreigners in Pyongyang use email and SMS (short message service) features via their smartphones,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service, adding that if a wireless network connection to the Internet is available, “there is no reason for these features not to work.”
According to the source, wireless networks connected to the Internet are only available in “certain areas,” such as prestigious hotels catering exclusively to foreign clientele in the capital.
It was unclear whether full access was available to Internet websites via a browser while connected to the wireless networks.
North Korean computer and mobile device users are limited to a closed intranet system which prevents them from obtaining information from the outside world, while access to the Internet is believed to be confined to a handful of the super elite and to students at certain exclusive universities under close supervision.
According to experts, North Korean cell phone users can only use Koryolink’s 3G network for basic functions such as phone calls and messaging services, but are prevented from accessing the Internet via the service.
“If this [practice of using email via wireless networks] becomes known to the North Korean authorities, there is a good chance that they will ban foreigners from bringing their smartphones into the country because they are sensitive to information from abroad,” the source said.
If reports of Internet access via wireless networks in the capital are accurate, users of any mobile device with a wireless antenna—including smartphones, tablets, and laptops—would be able to do so.
Experts have suggested that mobile devices manufactured in North Korea do not include wireless antennae, while devices believed to be produced in China and assembled in the North are thought to have had the equipment disabled.
But devices smuggled into the country from abroad could allow North Koreans to use included functioning wireless equipment to access wireless networks and send or receive sensitive information abroad.
A foreigner with close trade links in North Korea told RFA it was not surprising that foreigners in Pyongyang could send and receive emails abroad, but said that authorities would take careful steps not to allow local citizens to do so.
“Although some hotels do have email access [they are] unlikely to let locals do it,” the foreign source said.
“[North] Korean companies can send emails,” he said, implying that certain state-sanctioned businesses could do so for the purpose of carrying out international sales and purchases.
The source added that “foreigners on the Koryolink network can send emails, but no one else.”
But an expert on North Korean technology said that he was unaware of foreigners accessing the Internet to send emails via wireless networks in Pyongyang hotels and added that he would “be surprised if the authorities have left such a loophole open.”
While he said it was unlikely, Martyn Williams of the blog Northkoreatech.org, suggested that foreigners with 3G data roaming could possibly have their smartphones enabled to set up a “hotspot” network without a password, allowing others to send emails while connected.
“The other possibility is that authorities don't worry about open WiFi (wireless networks) because phones and laptops sold in the country have WiFi disconnected or are programmed to only connect to certain networks,” Williams said.
“That would mean most people couldn't use the open networks, but it would leave access available for folks with smuggled devices, and that's a big risk for the North Korean authorities.”
Williams referred to a recent screenshot posted by a South Korean Internet user suggesting that a Samsung mobile handset, which had been reported lost in the South, turned up on Google’s Android Device Manager with a location in a central district of Pyongyang.
While Williams was unable to verify the story, the model of the Samsung phone referred to was one that is sold in South Korea.
“The thing that was most intriguing was how the phone managed to be online,” Williams said, referring to how the device manager had located the phone.
“It would only be possible through WiFi or a local 3G account, and normal North Koreans don't have Internet through the 3G service. So [it] could have found and connected through an open WiFi signal.”
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.
North Koreans are reportedly allowed to access only certain 3G services with their cell phones, including SMS and MMS messaging and video calls, but not the Internet.
In November, a North Korean trader in China told RFA that while it is possible to download e-books and games on the North’s intranet system, “there is no interesting information [online].”
Reported by Joon-ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Min Seon Kim. Written in English with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes.