As if the rivalry between Android and Apple wasn’t making enough headlines, one of the most reclusive countries in the world says it has launched its own line of smartphones.
North Korea’s state news agency and photo service reported Saturday on a visit by supreme leader Kim Jong-un to the “May 11 Factory,” where he was shown what appeared to be an Android-based phone called the Arirang.
“He highly appreciated the creative ingenuity and patriotic enthusiasm with which the officials and employees of the factory laid a solid foundation for mass-producing hand phones by building a new modern hand phone production process,” said the dispatch from KCNA news agency.
Considering the country’s tight restrictions on freedom of speech, the article added ominously that the North Korean ruler praised the factory workers for “developing an application program in Korean style which provides the best convenience to the users while strictly guaranteeing security.”
North Korea is “on the cusp of a digital transformation,” said Alexandre Mansourov, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University‘s School of Advanced International Studies.
Dr. Mansourov said he was struck by the fact that Mr. Kim put his stamp of approval on the Arirang and even spoke about it in patriotic terms. “For a long time, they prohibited cell phones. This is a dramatic turnaround.”
Developing a domestic device, which would sold and operated under government control, is an attempt at limiting the growing use of black market Chinese phones, Dr. Masourov said.
North Korea has an official mobile network called Koryolink, a joint venture with Cairo-based Orascom Telecom, which was granted the country’s first commercial cellphone license in 2008. Orascom says it has two million subscribers in the country of 23 million people.
Even the simplest portable phone models now sell for $300 to $600 in North Korea, even though the population earns on average $90 a month, Dr. Masourov said.
Despite the claim that the phone was “produced with indigenous technology,” both Dr. Mansourov and another expert said they suspected the device was actually a Chinese knockoff being rebranded in North Korea.
“Workers are shown with finished products, inspecting them and testing them but no actual manufacturing is shown,” Martyn Williams, a North Korea media and technology specialist, noted on his website, Northkoreatech.org.
While North Korea has taken its first steps into the cyber age in recent years, with some mobile-phone and Internet services (there even is an official YouTube channel and a Twitter account, @uriminzok), analysts say that access is limited to the elite.
However, according to a report last year by AudienceScapes, a research program subsidized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, North Koreans increasingly are able to access outside information, through foreign broadcasts, bootleg DVDs and sharing USB memory keys loaded with South Korean music and movies.
“By international standards, the information environment in North Korea is still extremely restricted ... Yet, on the ground, things are changing and the near-complete information blockade the regime once maintained has begun to erode,” the report said.
Many members of the country’s elite, especially near the Sino-Korean border, regularly use illegal Chinese mobile phones, the report said.