SEOUL – North Korea, one of the most isolated and censored societies on the planet, has unveiled what it claims is a domestically produced smartphone.
Industry analysts, however, say the Arirang, built around Google’s Android OS, is likely manufactured in neighboring China. The existence of the phone, named after a famous Korean folk song, came to light during a factory inspection by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the weekend.
During the tour, Kim was given a detailed briefing on the “performance, quality and packing of the Arirang hand phone,” Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.
Some analysts suggest the Arirang is aimed at getting North Koreans to use an officially approved phone that can be properly monitored.
While Internet access is virtually nonexistent in North Korea, which comes bottom of any media freedom survey, the country is not a complete IT desert. Cellphones were introduced in 2008 through a joint venture with the Egyptian telecom firm Orascom, which says there are now 2 million users in North Korea. A domestic Intranet was launched in 2002.
Though it may be a natural progression for an impoverished country desperate for investment, in North Korea the economic imperative is always weighed against the potential for social disruption. Subscribers to the sole cellphone system provider, Koryolink, can call each other, but not outside the country. The Intranet is similarly cut off from the rest of the world, allowing its very limited number of users — 1,000 at most — to exchange state-approved information and little more.
For all the regime’s efforts, the information barrier erected around North Korea has, in recent years, begun to lose some of its prophylactic power. Smuggled Chinese mobile phones allow people near the border to connect with Chinese servers and make international calls, while rewired TVs allow access to outside broadcasting.
KCNA photos of Kim’s factory visit show workers with the finished phones, inspecting, testing and packing them. There are no pictures of an actual assembly line.
“Despite KCNA’s reporting that the handsets are made at the factory, they are probably made to order by a Chinese manufacturer and shipped to the factory where they are inspected before going on sale,” said Martyn Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech website.