A dramatic decrease in the monthly rate for cellphone services in impoverished North Korea has seen the number of subscribers skyrocket, but sources inside the reclusive nation say the data may be misleading, as people sign up for two mobile phones at once in order to avoid massive overage fees.
The cost of using a cellphone on Koryolink’s 3G network dropped from 25 yuan (U.S. $4) per month at the end of 2013 to a maximum of 1,000 won, or 1 yuan (U.S. $0.16), in 2014, prompting North Koreans to sign up in droves, according to an official with the Wireless Service Department in Yanggang province.
The surge in subscriptions has prompted the government to open a number of storefronts staffed with agents to deal with the demand and sell cellphones associated with the services, the source said, speaking to RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.
“Since last year, cellphone agencies have been established in each city and province,” he said.
“In Hyesan (the administrative center of Yanggang province), a cellphone agency was set up next to the Kim Jong Suk Art Theater (named after the grandmother of current regime leader Kim Jong Un), where many people often gather.”
According to the source, the base rate of 1 yuan per month provides subscribers with up to four hours of free calls and 20 text messages. Calls and other services in North Korea are limited to usage within the country only, except for resident foreigners, tourists and selected elite members of society.
The Wireless Service Department official did not provide statistics for the increase in subscribers.
Orascom, an Egyptian telecom company that jointly operates Koryolink with the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation, has said around 2.4 million, or 10 percent, of the country’s estimated 24 million people were signed up with the carrier by the end of June 2014.
In comparison, Orascom said Koryolink had hit 2 million users in May 2013, adding a million subscribers in the 15 months prior.
A second source from North Hamgyong province told RFA that the recent increase in subscriptions, linked to the purchase of new phones, had earned praise from central authorities.
“Last year, North Hamgyong province took first place in national sales of cellular phones and the head of its Wireless Service Department received a commendation,” the source said, adding that the capital Pyongyang came in second place, followed by North Pyongan province.
But while the base rates for cellphone services are cheap, subscribers are charged exorbitant fees totaling as much as 100 times the cost of monthly services if usage limits are exceeded, he said.
Because four hours of free talk time and 20 text messages are insufficient, the source said most merchants and officials choose to purchase two cellphones and subscribe to plans for both, allowing them to double usage each month and avoid the high overage fees.
The double purchasing of phones and monthly services had artificially inflated the number of subscribers, he said.
Skeptics have questioned the accuracy of Orascom’s claim of 2.4 million subscribers, saying that—after subtracting a standing army of 1 million soldiers who cannot own cellphones due to security reasons and at least 3 million children aged 10 years or younger—it would suggest more than one in 10 of North Korea’s mostly poverty-stricken citizens use mobile services.
Reports also say that handsets which operate on Chinese networks across the border are regularly smuggled into the country, further complicating estimates of how many cellphone users there are in the North.
North Koreans are reportedly allowed to access only certain 3G services with their cellphones, including SMS and MMS messaging and video calls, but not the Internet.