Why It’s Not So Easy to Make a Phone Call in North Korea

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Why It’s Not So Easy to Make a Phone Call in North Korea

Despite some modernization efforts, North Korean infrastructure is still old and there are tight political controls on communications.

Much as North Korea has made attempts in recent years to modernize its communications infrastructure, the act of making a phone call in that country is much harder than it is in most places, according to a report this week.

NKNews reported this week that while North Korea has a landline system that accepts calls from just about everywhere in the world, it’s incredibly difficult to call anyone’s phone number directly.

When one calls a phone number in North Korea, it’s usually routed through an international operator. And when calling, it’s important for the caller to know both the name and the phone number of the person they’re calling, since the operator usually won’t know it themselves. There are also, per the report, very few such operators working, to the point where one man interviewed called multiple times and the operators would get him repeatedly and recognize his voice.

Also, in some cases the operator will ask where the caller is calling from.

“Like visiting North Korea, making an international call to the country is much easier than you might expect, but can be costly and has a number of rules to follow and idiosyncrasies which are not immediately apparent,” Ian Bennett of the NGO Choson Exchange told NK News.

It’s also a frequent occurrence, per the report, for calls to not be completed as dialed, often because of “unpaid fees.”

“Calling the operator and asking for a company without knowing their number is futile,” Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, told the site. “The operators don’t seem to know the number for anyone or any organization and if they have a directory to hand they never seem to use it, you simply have to know the number and all they do is plug in the connection.”

Attempting to call businesses in North Korea can lead to further adventures.

“Assuming the person you are calling is not standing next to the receptionist, this is the point the waiting begins,” Bennett told NK News. “The phone receiver is set down on the desk, leaving you to listen to background noises of Pyongyang office life, occasional cellphone message notifications, opening and closing of doors, as footsteps clatter off down echoing corridors in search of the person you request.”

It isn’t only North Korea’s landline service that’s behind the times. The country is still on a 3G cellular network, and has been since 2008, and its network is now generations behind what’s available in most of the Western world. But there are rumblings that a 4G network may arrive sometime soon.

North Korea also reportedly launched a crackdown on Chinese-made cell phones last year, as foreign cellular phones are illegal in North Korea.

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.