Ouch: North Korea’s Telecom System Called “Worthless”

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February 19, 2021 Topic: Technology Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaTelecomPhonesInternetKim Jong-un

Ouch: North Korea’s Telecom System Called “Worthless”

Can the Hermit Kingdom find a way to actually upgrade its infrastructure?

It’s well-known that the telecommunications infrastructure in North Korea is less than robust. The country’s wireless networks run on 3G, which is two generations behind where the West is, and it’s not exactly simple to make landline calls, either. A recent report, interviewing people who have made many calls to, and in North Korea quoted them as saying it’s very difficult to call anyone’s phone number directly. 

Now, another new report says that North Korea’s stated efforts to improve its telecom infrastructure face numerous hurdles. 

According to Daily NK, the recent Eighth Party Congress in North Korea talked specifically about the need to improve the country’s telecom situation. However, per the report, “due to the poor condition of the country’s infrastructure, major developments like next-generation internet are still a long way off, and the country will likely settle for improvements to existing facilities.” 

That’s because, the source said, some parts of North Korea are still using infrastructure from as long as fifty years ago. And citing a study by the South Korea’s Korea Information Society Development Institute’s International Cooperation Research Division, North Korea “uses automated exchanges in Pyongyang, provincial capitals and other major cities, and manual switchboards in small and mid-sized cities as well as in rural areas.” 

There is some skepticism that North Korea can fix the infrastructure easily or quickly. 

“Currently, our mobile communication system is worthless—you could say it stopped at the first or second generation [technology],” said the source. “In this situation, the internet doesn’t work well, so it’s meaningless to talk of the fourth or fifth generation [technology]… “Internally, it’s almost impossible to indigenously produce and distribute the latest communications equipment. Because of this, you need to import the equipment to improve the environment from China, but currently, conditions [to do this] aren’t good.”

Due to international sanctions, North Korea does not allow the importation of foreign cellular phones, and reportedly launched a crackdown on Chinese phones late last year. The regime even held lectures “emphasizing that people who use Chinese-made mobile phones will face punishment.”

At the Eighth Party Congress, where the telecom plan was announced, the highest level of North Korean dignitaries reportedly received special TVs and watches from the regime. The watches, known as “name watches,” are engraved with Kim Jong-un’s name. The TVs were reportedly from a new brand called Kumgangsan, named for a North Korean mountain range. The TVs, too, were inscribed with the phrase “a gift from Kim Jong Un, Secretary General of the Workers’ Party of Korea.” The TVs were built after the Taedonggang TV Factory went into “full operation” in order to produce them. 

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Image: Reuters.