Two million North Koreans now own cell phones.
While it's probably obvious that they're not using them to check Facebook, they're also not spreading new ideas or helping undermine that country's totalitarian regime. In fact, the rapid spread of technology may be increasing Kim Jong Un's stranglehold over citizens' lives.
Censored content, government snooping, and limited access have made North Korean cell-phone owners unable or afraid to use their phones for subversive purposes. At the same time, the recent growth of mobile use has given the government another access point to spread propaganda and track potential dissidents.
North Korea's Koryolink network hit 1 million subscribers in early 2012, then topped 2 million the following spring. While that still accounts for just a fraction of the country's 25 million citizens, the rapid growth is undeniable. But don't take it as a signal that Kim Jong Un's regime is softening.
"There are no signs North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world," journalist Yonho Kim said Thursday at a Johns Hopkins University event in Washington. The Voice of America reporter presented his report, based on interviews with defectors, at the school's U.S.-Korea Institute.
According to Kim, authorities monitor all text messages—along with location data—in real-time, while voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years. One former North Korean security agent told him officials refer to cell phones as "cowbells" and refuse to carry them. "All the defectors I interviewed agreed users would never say anything politically inappropriate via cell phone, believing every call is monitored," Kim said.
North Korean cell phones, of course, don't offer Internet access. And the basic 200-minute, 20-text plan that comes with a phone is so expensive to "top off" that some people buy a second phone under a fake name just for the extra minutes (Only the wealthy can afford a phone to begin with. Mobile devices can cost hundreds of times the average citizen's monthly salary.)
Most people, however, own cell phones as a status symbol and use camera, video, and game functions more than actual calls. "An increasing number of cell-phone users in North Korea use their cell phone not as a communications device, but as a personalized entertainment system," said the U.S.-Korea Institute's Alexandre Mansourov.
If outside content—such as a South Korean soap opera—is found on a device, "an officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion and users can be sent to labor concentration centers," Kim said. And as citizens have learned about data transfer, the government has issued new models with fewer functions and forced citizens to return their phones so they can disable features like Bluetooth.
Meanwhile, the government has found a convenient tool to spread its message. Cell phones offer access to the state newspaper (whether that's via an application or MMS messages is in dispute). The ruling party also sends near-daily group texts updating users on Kim Jong Un's doings.
Though Koryolink covers a small fraction of the country's land mass, it reaches 94 percent of its people. Expanding service to North Korea's rural, less-populated areas would likely do little, according to a Korea Economic Institute report earlier this year. "In these remote areas where electricity is stored in car batteries and used to heat water, keeping cell phones charged is not a priority," wrote Scott Thomas Bruce, an associate at the East-West Center.
While cell-phone use is tightly controlled and monitored, Internet access is far worse. Only the privileged can use Kwangmyong, a state-run intranet that offers only approved media and closely watched chat and discussion boards. As for the actual Internet, as few as a dozen "super-elite" North Korean families can access it within the country, according to Bruce's report.
Some university students and state officials whose job it is to collect information on the country's enemies are also granted Internet access, again very limited and closely monitored.
For all Internet users, incoming communications are tracked by the state. Officials censor all outside email, responding to uncleared senders with a hand-typed "message not delivered" notice.
Cell-phone distribution has also been used as a means of economic control, added Mansourov. Among the people who can afford them, the desire for phones and talk time has displaced previous clamor for the government to offer goods like refrigerators. "By regulating the amount of free minutes, the North Korean government can actually regulate the demand for other consumer goods," Mansourov said.
In addition, the public's demand for cell phones has led people to spend foreign currency—much more valuable than the North Korean won—to obtain them. The agency that issues phones has become one of the government's biggest collectors of foreign money, no small feat in a cash-poor country.
The North Korean cell phone surge isn't all bad news. Defectors in South Korea have been able to send money and contact their North Korean families through brokers. Inland North Koreans call brokers near the Chinese border, who align the earpiece of one phone with the microphone of another illegal phone that is getting a signal from a Chinese network, allowing outside communication.
In some cases, SD and SIM cards have been used to share data outside of the government's eye. And in the future, said Mansourov, citizens may reach a "saturation point" with government-provided content and begin to demand more access. For now, though, it's not likely the technology will foment a revolution.
"North Korea is a place where optimistic dreams of technology-driven liberalism go to die," said Bruce.