In January, North Korea began implementation of 4G technology with Huawei equipment. While other parts of the world are already advancing research into 6G, the country led by Kim Jong-un is moving towards the transition from 3G to 4G with the expectation of completing 80% of 4G towers by 2025.

This technological gap is just one ingredient in the harsh reality of what it’s like to use a cell phone in North Korea.

Obviously, the citizens who live there have more damaging daily issues to deal with, considering the actions of an autocratic regime, but have you ever wondered how using a smartphone works there? What can and what is expressly prohibited? Well, we will detail this in this article.

No Samsung, Apple, or any other famous brand (at least not officially)

The first point to highlight is that in North Korea it is not possible to officially buy the devices that the world is usually interested in. No Apple products, forget the idea of ​​playing with the 100x zoom of the Galaxys Ultra, or looking for a more affordable alternative in the Xiaomi models.

In Kim Jong-un’s country, three models stand out as the best options today:

  • Chongson 234;
  • Chongson 222;
  • Samtaesong 8.

It is also possible to find models there known as Hwawon. According to a source interviewed anonymously by the Daily NK, The device features features found in top-of-the-line products from famous brands, such as facial and iris recognition, a high-resolution camera and good processing capacity.

Another very popular line there is Pyongyang, named after the country’s capital. In 2019, still under the hype of the notch on the screen of cell phones from different brands, the Pyongyang 245which also adopted this characteristic.

Pyongyang 245

North Korea emphasizes that the production of the devices takes place locally, but experts dispute this. According to Martyn Williams, an American technology expert, these devices are probably manufactured in China and sent to North Korea.

However, the government has already released images to strengthen the idea that production takes place in its domains, as in the image below, from 2013, which shows Kim in a supposed factory holding a cell phone known as Arirang.

It is said that the location was only for packaging and distributing the devices. This device, which was reportedly manufactured in China, was a modified version of the Uniscope U1201, manufactured by Jiangsu.

As border control ends up not being so efficient, famous brand devices reach the population. In 2018, research by the Sejong Instituterevealed that North Koreans love Samsung cell phones, and that many would find a way to use the brand’s devices.

There are also those who tried to make modifications to the device’s operating system to escape monitoring and some bizarre things applied by the government. As reported by this report of Lumen and 38 North, cell phone software takes random photos while the device is on and stores them in a directory where they cannot be deleted.

How much do cell phones cost in North Korea?

The most powerful model at the moment is the Samtaesong 8, released last year. With a design very similar to Samsung options, it is sold for the equivalent, in direct conversion, of R$5,151. The Chongson 234 costs around R$3,798, and the Chongson 222 costs R$2,899. According to some surveys released in 2022, the country has around 6.5 and 7 million cell phone users.

About two in 10 people in North Korea use these more popular models, the rest of the population has cheaper cell phones. The country’s GDP per capita is 1.43 million won, about US$1,060. For comparison purposes, Brazil’s GDP per capita is US$8,917, according to 2022 data.

As highlighted at the beginning, citizens have much bigger problems to solve there. According to an anonymous report from a construction worker in North Korea, he barely has money to buy food. “The 4,000 won he earns a day – the equivalent of US$4 or R$20 – is no longer enough to buy a kilo of rice, and it has been so long since his family has received rations of food from the government that he he even forgot about them.”, highlights the BBC based on the man’s account

Continuous monitoring

Over the years, with its system updates, North Korea has strengthened its control over communication.

Just because a citizen buys a cell phone there doesn’t mean they can use it however they want. The government makes external connections unfeasible. All calls are monitored by security agencies.

Thanks to a mandatory update released last year, North Korea improved its digital signature system, preventing users from manipulating the operating system, installing other operating systems, or viewing external information.

The possibility of sending photos or videos via text messages was also banned. The order now is to prevent users from sharing most media files.

The government has full access to cell phone activities. Including call and message logs.

Another update will take place by October 2024, and it will be even stricter. Kim and the gang will ensure that no apps can be installed via external terminals.

And what happens if a citizen wanders around the country without a properly updated cell phone? Well, their device is confiscated.

According to reports from Brazilian tourists, guides warn that it is necessary to check cell phones and delete any video, image or audio with religious, pornographic or North Korea-related content, as soldiers search the devices. It is also prohibited to take photos of the leaders’ images if there is any obstruction, however small.

modified Android

The phones sold in North Korea run a modified version of Android AOSP. Forget about the connection to Google services, AOSP is related to the open-source version of the operating system..

What smartphone does Kim Jong-un use?

In a government similar to that offered by Kim Jong-un, it is common for the leader not to exactly share the supposed “benefits” and also restrictions that the state imposes on the citizen. It seems that Kim is a big fan of technology, but no Samtaesong 8, Chongson 234, or any model offered in his country.

In 2013, Kim was photographed using an Apple iMac, and also appeared next to a cell phone that closely resembled the iPhone.

iMac on Kim Jong-un’s desk

Last year, during a test of the new international ballistic missile (ICBM), the dictator appeared next to a table with an object reminiscent of foldable models from Samsung and Huawei. “If the object in the photo is a foldable smartphone, it is highly likely that it was secretly smuggled from China to North Korea.”reported South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo.

Due to UN restrictions, North Korea cannot import or export the devices, but Kim finds a way to get some gadgets.

Therefore, it is not possible to establish which model is used by Kim, but, apparently, he likes good, functional imperialist technology.


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