The heavy restrictions on mobile phones carried into North Korea by foreigners, have been eased, meaning visitors can now bring their own devices into the country.
The change in policy, reported on by the Associated Press (AP) today, means that people can bring wideband, WCDMA-compatible handsets into the country. Alternatively, they can choose to rent a mobile phone at the airport and purchase a local SIM card for making calls and texts in North Korea.
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The article cites the 3G network provider Koryolink, which said that such a SIM card will allow visitors to call “most foreign countries,” as well as the foreign embassies and international hotels located in Pyongyang – the capital of North Korea.
It’s a huge step for a government that is known to be very protective of the information that comes in or out of North Korea. In the past, travellers would be forced to hand over their mobile phone at the border, picking it up again only once they were about to leave the country. For some, this made communicating with friends, family or colleagues very difficult.
Even if foreigners decide to rent a mobile phone for roughly $3.50 a day, or purchase a SIM card for about $67, they will not be able to call or text any North Korean citizens. This is because locals use an entirely separate network, and the SIM cards offered to visitors at the airport do not provide any Internet access.
The locally provided SIM cards can be used to call anyone in the United States or Japan, but not a person in South Korea, where North Korea still has a tense relationhip. The 3G network offered by Koryolink can also be used to download and read the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmum, although again all other Internet access is restricted.
The AP report states that last Friday, a saleswoman for Koryolink was seen setting up rental booths for mobile phones at the Sunan aiport in Pyongyang. One poster read: “Here You Can Buy Koryolink Visitor Line.”
It’s a small step to reversing the isolation so entrenched in North Korean culture. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, has published his thoughts about his recent trip to the country over on Google+, suggesting that North Korea and its economy is suffering at the moment due to its lack of Internet access.
“Once the Internet starts in any country, citizens in that country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do one thing: open up the Internet first,” he said. “They have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government of North Korea has not yet done. It is their choice now, and in my view, it’s time for them to start, or they will remain behind.”
Image Credit: Feng Li/Getty Images