North Korea is probably the most reclusive country in the world. It's notoriously difficult to gain entry to the so-called Hermit Kingdom, even for mere tourists. And even then it's hard to see what life inside the regime is really like. But now you can at least know what it feels like—and sounds like—to use a North Korean cell phone as a foreigner.
Will Scott, an American academic who teaches computer science in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital and largest city, got a local cell phone subscription in the fall of 2015. On Thursday, Scott recreated what the standard recorded messages for subscribers of KoryoLink, the state-sanctioned mobile provider, sound like in an interactive simulator of sorts he posted on his website.
"Sorry, your call is restricted," says the voice of a KoryoLink employee when foreigners try to make local phone calls, which are not allowed, according to Scott.
The cell phone subscription available to foreigners is expensive, relatively hard to get, and has limited service. It cost Scott 80 euros (around $85) just to sign up to the voice service, and 120 euros (around $128) for the data service. A monthly subscription for a meager 50 megabytes of 3G data goes for $12, Scott said. Moreover, to even get the plan he had to fill out a form with his liaison the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But given that Scott spends a lot of time in Pyongyang it was worth getting a more reliable connection, and he decided to save the prerecorded messages to give people "a taste of KoryoLink phone service, without the trip to Pyongyang," as he put it. Scott published five prerecorded messages, including one for incorrect numbers, one that plays when foreigners try to call a local number—which is restricted—and the Koryolink support number.
"It was kinda fun that they had the whole phone tree set up," Scott told Motherboard in an online chat. "I don't know how many people ever called it, but I thought it was a neat artifact worth preserving."
Surprisingly, other than the cost, the service was actually pretty good. For example, Scott said, there's very few filters and censorship. Browsing with a cell phone and a foreigner's subscription in North Korea, is like using the international internet, he said. At least, it's "better than China."
"It's that cognitive dissonance where they've spent all this effort recording these messages in English, and yet there's no way for me to get in contact with anyone."
In 2016 the North Korean government started to add some internet restrictions, Scott added, "but the blocks aren't sophisticated." For example, when YouTube got blocked in the country last year it was "because it was using too much bandwidth." It's worth noting, however, that while this is true for foreigners' cell phone service, locals have a different, parallel service that only has access to North Korea's miniature version of the internet, with no external internet service.
The most curious thing for Scott was that KoryoLink, which claims to have 3 million subscribers, bothered to record bilingual messages, but didn't really offer much of a phone support service, since there was no way to get an operator on the line. He had to physically go to the KoryoLink office downtown in case of problems.
"It's that cognitive dissonance where they've spent all this effort recording these messages in English," Scott said, "and yet there's no way for me to get in contact with anyone."
Just another contradiction in one of the most isolated countries on Earth.
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