The Rising Use of Cell Phones in North Korea: Catalyst for Change or Instrument of Control?

Screenshot of the KCTV footage broadcast on July 12, 2023

One of the few privileges I had as a child in North Korea was living next to a post office (referred to as cheshinso in North Korea). Since most North Koreans didn’t have their own phones at the time, they had to make phone calls at the post office.

Our house was right next to the post office with a fence in between, and I was always so excited when a postal worker would come by and let me know when I had a phone call from a family member out of town. 

At any time, if someone was trying to contact us through the post office, the staff would come out and yell, “Come and answer the phone!”

Just the fact that I could hear the voice of someone I couldn’t see and have a conversation with the person on the other side was thrilling. 

I loved it so much that in 2005, I bribed a post office staff member I had become close with.

In exchange for a female sanitary pad, which was very hard to get in North Korea, I got to play all night in the room at a post office with a telephone.

To many people, the post office might seem like a common or boring place, but to me, the post office was one of the most interesting places that made my childhood joyful. 

I recently met a fellow North Korean friend who has been living in South Korea for three years. 

When I told her about my experience with phone calls at the post office, she was surprised and said, “You still think they use that system? Not many North Koreans make calls in post offices these days.”

“Cheshinso” and North Korea’s Postal System

A “cheshinso” is a post office in North Korea that handles postal services such as regular mail, parcels, and telegrams, as well as receiving and directing phone calls. 

When this author was living in North Korea, the post office operated through the Korea Posts and Telecommunications Co. (KPTC) under the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT). 

Each region has a telecommunication office (city, county), post office (city, county), and sub-post office (district, town).

Overall, North Korea’s postal system today remains quite similar to postal systems in other countries, but one of the main differences was that North Koreans have also relied on post offices to make phone calls.

Until 2005, post offices were the only places that most North Koreans could make or receive phone calls, but even in a country that is slow to change, the days of making calls from a post office have long gone.

From Post Office Phone Calls to Eagerly Awaiting New Cell Phone Models 

I was amazed to hear when a friend who recently defected from North Korea told me that she changed her cell phone twice a year and that “no one goes to the post office to make calls anymore.”

She said her TouchPhone 2416 phone model cost about $120 in 2019, and she used it to share photos via Bluetooth, make calls, and send texts. 

Before this phone, cell phone models produced in North Korea such as the Bar Phone 1106, 1007, and 1008 were popular and were commonly referred to as a magdaegi phone or “stick phone” among locals.

Other cell phone models that were available at that time – the F109 and T95 – were more expensive because they were imported from China. 

Though it varies depending on specific models, the cost of buying one cell phone could be $120 for a touchscreen phone and $90 for a SIM card used to issue a cell phone number, for a total of $210. 

The process of obtaining a cell phone number is difficult and takes a long time, so people usually buy a U-SIM. An amount like $210 is considered a vast sum of money in North Korea.

Many North Koreans only earn a meager wage from their official jobs provided by the state. They struggle to earn money through unofficial means just to survive, which underscores how highly they value these relatively expensive cell phones.

In this regard, one defector who escaped from North Korea in 2020 said, “Cell phones are expensive to many North Koreans, but interestingly, whenever a new phone comes out, people buy it.” 

The defector also noted, “Recently (as of November 2023), while talking to my family in North Korea, I heard about people downloading apps on their phones and buying things through apps. I can’t believe that in the less than 3 years since I came to South Korea, things have changed to the point where you can buy things through your phone.”

In fact, there are approximately 4.9 million cell phone users in North Korea, accounting for 19% of the total population. This is an increase of 1.3 million compared to 3.6 million users in 2016. 

There are also many different types of cell phones, including the Pyongyang Touch, Arirang, Blue Sky, Samtaesong 8, and many others. 

Of course, these North Korean phones don’t have access to the internet, nor can people make calls on them to those outside the country as cell phones commonly used in the rest of the world would allow. But the popularity of cell phones as a tool of communication is a sign that North Korean society is changing.

However, it’s important to remember that increased cell phone usage in North Korea doesn’t mean that North Korean society has become a more hospitable environment for people.

In fact, defectors who have used these cell phones have reported that they often hear static during calls, as if someone were listening in. 

As horizontal communication increasingly expands in North Korean society today, it also helps the regime spread its propaganda and monitor citizens more effortlessly.

 It’s a double-edged sword, the paradox of technology.

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