North Korea has released a tablet computer which is fairly impressive but restricted from accessing the Internet, according to sources who suspect its components are made in China and that a globally popular game preloaded on the device may have been pirated.
The seven-inch (18-cm) “Samjiyon” tablet is manufactured by the Korea Computer Center, the reclusive state’s leading government information technology research center, and runs on a recent version of Google’s Android mobile operating system.
Foreigners who bought the gadget in Pyongyang said they were impressed by the device’s technical specifications, saying its 1.2 GHz processor was even faster than that of South Korean producer Samsung’s seven-inch Galaxy Tab 2, released at the end of last year, which runs on a 1 GHz processor.
The tablet, the latest of three released over the last year, also claims to sport up to 1 GB of RAM memory and 16 GB of internal storage as well as a serviceable camera.
Several North Korea watchers said even though the authorities do not allow such devices to access the Internet, the Samjiyon’s only drawback appears to be its lack of high screen resolution.
Soren Kittel, a German journalist who recently traveled to the North, was able to purchase a Samjiyon, which he described to RFA’s Korean Service as a “North Korean-style iPad.”
“Even though it looked like it was not well made, a closer look revealed that it worked quite well,” Kittle said.
“It functioned well enough to sell to customers in the West, which was more than I expected.”
The tablet comes preloaded with a variety of applications, including popular games such as Angry Birds, but Finland-based Rovio Entertainment told the Washington Post that it has no affiliation with the version of the game shown on the Samjiyon, indicating that North Korea may have pirated the game.
“I was surprised that Angry Birds was included in the operating system,” Kittle said.
The tablet also includes nearly 500 pre-installed dictionaries, reference works and e-books, running the gamut from the nation’s more important works of propaganda to Western literature classics such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
But Kittle said that while the device holds up to its peers in terms of functionality, it’s most noticeably lacking feature is one common to nearly every other tablet available on the world market: the ability to connect to the Internet.
Kittle, who also owns an iPad, said that the inability to access the Internet makes the Samjiyon “a lot less useful.”
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.
According to Martyn Williams of the blog Northkoreatech.org, the Samjiyon is similarly restrictive, in that it includes a web browser which only allows a user to connect to North Korea’s nationwide intranet, known as the “Kwangmyong.”
The browser includes bookmarks to several official intranet sites, including the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the Korean Central News Agency, Korean Central Television, and the Grand People’s Study House, the blog said.
Williams said settings in the tablet’s configuration files refer to hardware than can connect to the Internet and that it is possible the function has been disabled in its software.
Ruediger Frank, a Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at Austria’s University of Vienna who also purchased a Samjiyon on a recent trip to North Korea, said in a product review to the blog 38 North that he did not have a chance to connect the tablet to the intranet while he was in Pyongyang.
“However it works, this limited connectivity has its advantages,” Frank said.
“The tablet has obviously been made for people who mainly use it offline. The number and quality of the pre-installed applications (apps) are remarkable and reflect the peculiarity of the market for this product.”
Frank, who bought an earlier version of the Samjiyon, said he was impressed by the device, the resolution of which was its “only hardware component that is markedly below standard.”
But he said that at 180 euros (U.S. $240), way beyond the salary of an average worker, most North Koreans were unlikely to even get a chance to review the tablet’s features and functionality.
“No, this gadget is not available to all North Koreans; just as a Mercedes Benz S-class sedan is out of reach for most Germans,” he said.
“The existence of this tablet does not in any way change the fact that [North Korea] is, for many of its people, a country of hard manual labor and simple living conditions. It is a developing country with an economy that has been devastated by decades of socialist inefficiency.”
Frank said that the majority of North Koreans are more concerned with securing food and heating, “not about electronic gadgets.”
“But, just as there are now more than 2 million mobile phones in North Korea, the Samjiyon tablets exist and highlight one facet of this increasingly diverse society,” he said.
“It is a useful and entertaining device for a minority in a totalitarian system with a dominant ideology.”
Made in China?
Sources also suggested that, despite the vast cost required of the average North Korean to purchase, the Samjiyon and other “homegrown” tablets—such as the Ahchim and the Arirang—often break down and are not easily repaired.
“When the Ahchim was released, it was very popular among university students,” a North Korean trader in China told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But nowadays, it has lost its popularity because of the repair problems.”
The trader said that while it is possible to download e-books and games on the intranet, the devices were also losing favor with the public because “there is no interesting information [online].”
“University students only use it to read the memoirs of [North Korean founder] Kim Il Sung and the complete works of [his son and late leader] Kim Jong Il, or to do homework by utilizing the English and Chinese dictionaries,” he said.
Tablets are also used as toys for children who are just beginning to learn how to use computers, he added.
A Chinese businessman who makes frequent trips to North Korea suggested that the reason the tablets are so hard to repair is because many of the components are produced in China, despite claims that they are built in the North.
“After Kim Jong Un ordered the development of a North Korean-style tablet like the iPad, the Department of North Korean Electronic Industry started to work on one,” he said.
“However, the base of the electronics industry in North Korea is seriously lagging and the only way they could do it was by assembling components from Chinese companies.”
According to Northkoreatech.org, configuration files buried within the Samjiyon indicate that its motherboard was produced by Hong Kong-based manufacturer Yecon and that the tablet was assembled by Alps, a maker of similar devices.
Reported by Songwu Park and Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.