Stand in Line for Half Day Long to Make a Phone Call

Daily NK
Kim Young Jin
7/20/2005

Demand for Wire Telephones after the Government Confiscation of Cellular Phones

Recently in North Korea, demand for house phone skyrocketed and as the government confiscated personal cellular phones, people have also be increasingly using public phones.

It is known that setting a wire telephone for a household costs more than 450,000 Won and it is difficult to get one even after 4-5 months longs reservations.

Even Cellular Phones of Government Officials Confiscated

Park Young Chul (pseudo name, age 45) whom The DailyNK met in Tumen of China testified, “As the government completely banned the use of cellular phones after the Ryonchon Incident, demand for wire phones has been skyrocketing.”

Is the use of cellular phones still banned?

“It is hard to see cellular phones in North Korea. Not in local places, even in cities, people holding cellular phones cannot be seen.”

How about the Party cadres and managers of the state enterprises?

“The government confiscated all the cellular phones after the Ryongchon accident. They are still strictly banned. Even the provincial party cadres, National Security Agency, People’s Safety Agency officials are not allowed to use cellular phones.”

There are two kinds of cellular phones used in North Korea.

One kind is the official one acknowledged by the government, the GSM method of European style, which was used since 2002. Although it costs more than $1300 only to register and it is only usable in the city, it is known that more than 20,000 people are using this kind. Most of the users are foreigners and among the North Korean people, Party cadres and special government officials possessed it as the symbol of their special right.

The other kind is the Chinese wave, which the people use in secret along the Sino-Korean border areas. Although the number of users is unverifiable, it is known that the main purpose of their cellular phone use is to communicate with their family members in China and South Korea or with the dealers for their businesses. Due to the limitation in reach of the wave, these phones cannot be used extensively in inland. They are especially targeted by the government for control.

Then after the Ryongchon accident was known to the outside world by the cellular phones, the government of North Korea confiscated all the cellular phones last May. Although the foreigners are free from prohibition, there is no way for North Korean people to legally possess cellular phones.

Wire Phone Lines Still Hard to Get Even with Money

Then how do the people in North Korea communicate with each other?

“Usually by the wire phones (house phones). People who run business with other sellers and buyers in other verify their deals through phone. Those who have enough money seek to obtain their own phone line.”

Due to the limited means of transportation and communication, price differences between the regions varied much. For example, in Huiryeong of North Hamkyung province, the price of rice was low and the price of pollak pretty high while in Chungjin the opposite. People could take advantage of such price difference and earn money in between, for instance, by buying pollak in Chungjin and selling them in Huiryeong and buying rice from Huiryeong and selling it in Chungjin.

In the past such business were done only with guesses on price, but now phones are used to check the price differences. Recently dollar dealers are known for checking exchange rates through phone calls to China and even across the nation everyday.

How much does it cost to obtain a phone line?

“In the past it was not so difficult if you had money. Now, it is pretty difficult even if you had money. It cost about 450,000 to 500,000 North Korean won. That is a lot of money in North Korea. However, it is not a matter of how much it costs. The problem is that the government does not have enough of IC block necessary for switchboard of the Ministry of Communication to set up the phone line, so even if you had requested for a phone line, you are not guaranteed to get one.

Does that mean that someone has to withdraw a line for another person to get?

“Precisely. In the end, the cost of setting a phone line is actually the cost of selling and buying the IC block. The cost also includes the expense of laying phone line from the place where switchboard is located to the designated house. That is why it is so expensive.”

After the 7.1 Economic Management Improvement Measure in 2002, the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker ranges between 1500∼2500 won, thus 450,000won is the amount which an average worker has to save for 20 years without spending a penny, but the fact that “many people are willing to obtain” shows that there is a significant number of rich people present in North Korea.

Personal Identification and Deposit Money Required for the use of ‘Public Phones’

How is the situation of the public phones?

“They are called “common phones,” and two or three of them are located in each communications office or branch office in each area (district). There is a communications office in every 8km~12km and in the city about 4km.”

How much does it cost?

“It costs 10won for one local call. Before it was 50 jun (half of 1won) but recently the price increased. Of course the price varies for long distance called, they are more expensive. You have to leave your personal identification and 40-50won of deposit at the office prior to your make the call and when you are done you get them back after you pay.”

Why do you need personal identification and deposit money?

“They made this procedure because of some people who ran away without paying”

Are there many people using the public phones?

“There was a communications office about 4km away from my house, usually if I go, I had to wait about 30 minutes to make a call. Sometimes you have to waste as long as half of the day for your turn. Still, there are many people in line waiting.”

Park sighed and said, “Only if the transportation system were a little bit better, the living of the people would be much better. When one thing gets better, the government soon turns it down.” What we see is a scene of discord between the people who are already living in capitalistic style and the government that tries to deject it.

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