Archive for January, 2013

Foreigners now allowed mobile phones in the DPRK

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

UPDATE 1 (2013-1-28): The Koryo Tours Facebook Page has an image of the KoryoLink poster at Sunan Airport:


ORIGINAL POST (2013-1-22): According to NK News:

According to Richie Fenner, a tour manager at China based Young Pioneer Tours who reported the news today, explained that GPS enabled devices are allowed in the country. He told us:

“When we were coming in on the train, they asked us to show us our phones. The customs official asked if the first one he looked at had GPS, which it didn’t, so he handed it back. But then with the iPhones and other modern phones when we told them they had GPS, he just handed them back and gestured that we just put them in our bag.”

Thinking that the phones might just be sealed upon the group’s arrival to Pyongyang, Fenner explained that to his surprise the local guides explained a new policy meant that foreigners can now keep their cell phones in their possession. But that didn’t mean they could be used. Fenner explained, “Wthout a North Korean sim card, the phones are useless. I asked if we could get North Korean SIM cards and our guide said that it might be possible in the future”.

American tourist Sato Shi who joined the tour group by plane (U.S. citizens may not take the train) confirmed that the policy has been applied to the airport, too. “When we went to the customs they were checking our bags, saw my cellphone and then just gave it back to me and said “Hey, just keep it with you”.

Smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy are a rare commodity in North Korea. Fenner explained that his North Korean colleagues were very interested in trying them and playing games throughout the tour. “It’s all very new for them, I don’t think they’ve seen iPhones and Smartphones before”.

Given the lack of SIM cards and network access, the Young Pioneer tour group explained they could only really use their phones to take photos, play games, and use as an alarm. Young Pioneers today explained on their website that the news shows North Korea’s intent to “make tourism easier and a larger part of the economy”.

Xinhua reports some additional details:

“Just fill a registration form at the Customs with your phone’ s IMEI number, you can bring your own phones to DPRK,” said a unnamed Egyptian technician.

“If you want to make international calls, the WCDMA 3G mobile phone owners can purchase our Koryolink SIM card, which costs 50 euro,” the technician said.

For decades before, foreigners visiting the DPRK must leave their cellphones at the Customs and can pick them up on departure.

“We have tried hard to negotiate with the Korean security side, and got the approval recently,” said the Egyptian, noting that “it has nothing to do with the Google trip.”

In fact, foreigners still can not really use the Koryolink 3G network, with no internet access allowed yet. The Koryolink staff said that the mobile internet service for foreigners will be opened soon. “It is not a technical problem, we just wait for the DPRK authority’ s approval.”

There are 1.8 million Koreans using 3G cellphones across the country since 2008, which supports MMS and video call. But their mobile phones can neither make international calls nor connect to the Internet. Furthermore, Koreans and Foreigners can not make calls between each other due to their SIM cards set by different segments.

Kyodo offers video of people purchasing the KoryoLink SIM cards:

NK News reports the new price structure:

1. Purchase: These cards will be valid indefinitely and can be used for repeat visits. The cost for these will be 50 euro with a nominal amount of prepaid call money included.

2. Two Week SIM Card “rental”: Costing 50 euros, these cards can be used for two weeks before becoming invalid. They include 30 euro of prepaid service.

3. One month rentals: These cost 75 euro and include 55 euro of prepaid service.

Call rates:

– China and South East Asia- 1.43 Euro a minute

– Russia- 0.68 Euro a minute

– France and Switzerland- 0.38 Euro a minute

– UK and Germany- 1.58 Euro a minute

Other rates including the U.S have yet to be confirmed

UPDATE: A friend sent in a picture of the rates (2014). the rates do not appear to have changed:



Google Earth and the DPRK: Pyongyang Mosque, Kobangsan, and new hospital

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Pyongyang has a mosque:



Top: A reader allowed me to post this image (thank you) of a mosque in Pyongyang. Bottom: The Google Earth image of the mosque.

The mosque is located inside the Iranian embassy compound.  This would make it a Shia mosque.  There is not a mosque at either the Egyptian embassy or the Pakistani embassy. I am unsure of the location of the Libyan embassy (do any readers know?) or whether it has a mosque. In the meantime, the DPRK might be the only country with a Shia mosque but not a Sunni mosque.

If the embassy staff are good Muslims, they should allow you to enter the compound to visit the mosque. Just be sure to bring modest clothes, and women, please cover your heads.

UPDATE 2015: Jakaparker has posted images of the interior of the mosque to his instagram account. You can see them here, here, here, here, and here.

Dear Sophie Schmidt:

I just read your web page on travel in the DPRK. I thought I would help you out a bit. Here is the picture you posted of your guesthouse:


This is the Kobangsan (고방산) Guest House and it is located in the eastern suburbs of Pyongyang. Here is a Google Earth satellite image of the place:


Here are the Google Earth coordinates:  39.054577°, 125.879205°

Also, you should check out this digital atlas I published of the DPRK. The data is better than Google’s. 🙂

Taesongsan General Hospital


This weekend KCNA/KCTV reported on Kim Jong-un’s visit to the newly built Taesongsan General Hospital (대성산종합병원). Pictured above is the Google Earth satellite image of the place. Google Earth coordinates:  39.109678°, 125.911093°. NK Leadership Watch has more information on the Hospital.

Here is the video that appeared on KCTV:

Learn more about the visit here.


Speculation time: A new kwan-li-so or expansion of Camp 14?

Friday, January 18th, 2013

UPDATE 3 (2017-2-10): According to the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2013 (2013-05-16), this new prison camp was formed from the remnants of the closed Camp 18 in Pukchang County:

2012년에 확인된 또 다른 변화로는 평남 북창군 신흥리 및 삼포동 일대에 위치하던 북창 18호 관리소가 대폭 축소되어 평남 개천 동림리 지역으로 이전하였다는 사실이다.

Another change confirmed in 2012 is that Camp 18, located in the vicinity of Pukchang, Pyongnam, got downsized by a large degree and moved to 동림리, 개천, Pyongnam.

18호 관리소가 관할하던 지역은 단 계적 해제 과정을 거쳐 일반시설로 환원되었고, 여전히 해제되지 않은 수용자들은 2006~2007년경 개천 지역으로 이전한 것으로 파악된다.

The area controlled by Camp 18 got gradually disassembled and changed into a general facility [Pongchang Coal Mine], and remaining inmates were sent to 개천 area in around 2006 and 2007.

현재 18호 관리소의 수용인원은 2009년 정부 추정치인 1만 9천 명보다 훨씬 축소된 2천~5천 명 규모로 추정된다.

The current estimate of the number of inmates in Camp 18 ranges from 2,000 to 5,000, much down from the 2009 government estimate of 19,000.

However, as of 2013 the former Camp 18 location has been reopened as a new prison camp. Its name and administrative classification are still unknown.

UPDATE 2 (2016-3-17): Joseph Bermudez has written about this site for HRNK, in which he calls it “Ch’oma-bong Restricted Area“.

UPDATE 1 (2013-1-21): Thanks to the Daily NK and Wall Street Journal for helping to reach out to others who may know about this facility. Here is an interview I did for NPR.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-1-18): Today (Friday) Google Earth was updated with new satellite imagery (dated 2011-9-21) of the area around Camps 14 and 18 (Kwan-li-so 14). Camp 18 is said to have been closed for a few years and the area has even been featured on North Korean television (See Pongchang District Coal Mine, 봉창지구탄광, here and here).

While updating my Google Earth file to match the new satellite imagery, however, I noticed the addition of a new area that bears striking similarity to other known “kwan-li-so (관리소)” or prison camps. This area was built sometime between 2006-12-17 and 2011-9-21. It is surrounded by a very visible security perimeter. It is also placed right next to Camp 14– even sharing 3kms of border.



Pictured Above (Google Earth): The location of interest next to Camp 14 in Kaechon County

Let’s look at this new area more closely. The security perimeter is approximately 20km in circumference  There are two entrances on the northwestern edge of the fence:

new-camp-entrance-2006-12-17 new-camp-entrance-2011-9-21-logo

Pictured above is the northern most entrance. The picture on the left is dated 2006-12-17. The picture on the right is dated 2011-9-21.

new-camp-entrance-2-2006 new-camp-entrance-2-2011-logo

Pictured above is the southern entrance.  This appears to more of a staff or auxiliary entrance.

There appear to be six new buildings constructed around the perimeter that could serve as guard posts/facilities. Three of them are identical:


There has been some new residential and administrative units added to the interior as well:

new-camp-interior-2006 new-camp-interiot-2011-logo

Pictured above (Google Earth): Residential and administrative construction within the perimeter fence. This village does not appear on any North Korean atlas that I have seen.

There is an old coal mine inside the perimeter fence, but it does not appear to be operational.  Comparisons of debris show that coal piles have become overgrown with trees since 2004. In addition, the electrical substation that was located here to power the mine (before the fence was built)  has been removed:

new-camp-substation-2004 GoogleEarth_Image

So I don’t want to jump to any conclusions here, but this facility certainly raises flags.  I look forward to hearing opinions and information/criticism from the wider North Korea-watching community.


DPRK visitors to China in 2012

Friday, January 18th, 2013

UPDATE 1 (2013-1-18): According to the Daily NK:

The number of North Koreans visiting China legally reached a record high of 180,600 in 2012, an 18% increase over the 2011 figure of 152,300.

Radio Free Asia released the news today, citing Chinese statistics. According to the report, the most common reason for the visits was ‘employment’ (79,600, 44%) followed by ‘business’ (55,200, 31%).

The number visiting China for ‘business’ increased by roughly 10,900 over the 2011 figure, while the number of those visiting for ‘employment’ increased by 4,300.

According to RFA, “This is because of the greater number of exchanges and joint ventures going on between North Korea and China in the economic sector.”

Elsewhere in the statistics, 4,500 (2.5%) North Koreans also visited China last year for purposes of tourism and leisure, and 200 (0.1%) went to visit friends and relatives.

Read the full story here:
Legal North Korean Visitor Numbers Rise
Daily NK
Jeong Dae Sung

ORIGINAL POST (2012-4-24): Number of visitors up in first quarter of 2012. According to Yonhap (via Korea Times):

The number of North Koreans visiting China in the first three months of the year surged more than 40 percent from a year ago, with the majority arriving for employment or business purposes, a report said Tuesday.

A total of 40,200 North Koreans visited the neighboring country in the first quarter, up 40.5 percent on-year, according to the Voice of America, which quoted data from the China National Tourism Administration.

About half, or 19,300 visitors, were seeking work in China’s manufacturing and dining industries, while another 10,800 visitors arrived for business purposes, the report said. Only 1,100 North Koreans toured China for sightseeing.

By age group, 19,100 visitors were aged between 45 and 64, followed by 17,200 people who were aged between 25 and 44.

Ferries transported the highest number of passengers at 17,400, while 9,300 people traveled by automobile.

The number of male visitors came to 33,200, or 83 percent of the total, far exceeding the number of females.

The data did not include defectors or other North Korean visitors who arrived by unofficial means, the report said.

See a report of North Korean visitors to China in 2011 here.

Read the full story here:
NK visitors to China swell in first quarter
Yonhap (via Korea Times)



China to provide North Korea with consultation on management and operation of joint SEZs

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

China’s Ministry of Commerce reportedly sent about 70 specialists to North Korea to provide “joint consulting” services for Rajin and Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa Islands joint special economic zones (SEZs).

According to Yonhap News, about 70 specialists from the Department of Commerce of Jilin Province were dispatched to North Korea a few months ago to work on the China-DPRK joint venture projects. Their main focus is to discuss the management and legal systems of the SEZs, promotion of foreign investment, and share over 30 years of China’s experience on opening and reform.

The Department of Commerce of Jilin Province is directly under the Commerce Ministry. Chinese officials are going between Rajin, Sinuiju (near Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa Islands), and Pyongyang areas to negotiate on specific management measures concerning the SEZs.

Since Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) Jang Song Thaek visited China in August 2012, the two countries have reached an agreement and established joint management committee in Rason and Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa Islands. Since then, briefing sessions have been hosted in major Chinese cities to promote investment in North Korea.

Many speculated that joint management committees would be established in both zones.

A recent article in North Korea’s economic journal Kyongje Yongu (October 30, 2012), outlined general types of SEZ management: management-led, public enterprise management, cooperative management, joint venture, and contract-based management committees. Government-led management committee was referred to as the most common form.

Currently, the Kaesong Industrial Complex is jointly operated by North and South Korea by a management committee. However, one drawback to this system is that the high government involvement places enormous constraints on the activities of investing companies.

China, on the other hand, is trying to reduce North Korea’s intervention in the management process of the SEZs. China is also shying away from adopting a management committee-led form of management.

Meanwhile, the seventh meeting of the DPRK-China Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee on Economics, Trade, and Science and Technology was held in Pyongyang on January 9, where an agreement on economic and technology cooperation was signed. At a subsequent ceremony, the two sides also signed an agreement for the construction of administrative office buildings in the Rason and Hwanggumpyong SEZs.

The DPRK-China Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee on Economics, Trade, and Science and Technology began in March 2005 and has held one to two meetings each year to promote bilateral economic cooperation.


New(ish) KPA construction in South Hwanghae Province

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

The following post I reported on Radio Free Asia yesterday.

The Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) is increasing its air and artillery capacity in South Hwanghae Province within the vicinity of the disputed West Sea maritime border and Yonphyong-do.

To begin with, in south-west Kangryong County near Sikyo-ri (강령군, 식여리), the DPRK has established four new KPA units each with dispersed revetments which could be used to protect deployed offensive capabilities such as artillery or short range rockets (MRLs)…maybe KN-08s? I will leave it to the professionals to figure out.


According to available commercial satellite imagery, these units were built sometime between 2010-7-4 and 2012-6-20:

Sikyo-ri-2010 Sikyo-ri-2012

In the image above, just one of the four areas that has been constructed, we can see the creation of the new KPA unit as well as six revetments. These revetments lie 14-16 miles from Yonphyong-do.

To the east of this area, near Habupho, Kangryong County (하부포, 강령군), the Korean Peoples’ Army is building three lines of hardened artillery (HART) positions to protect the DPRK’s Multiple Rocket Launch (MRL) vehicles deployed to this area:


According to available satellite imagery, construction on these HARTs began in early 2011, and as of 2012-6-20, they appear to be nearly complete.

Kangryon-HARTs-2010-11-24 Kangryon-HARTs-2012-6-20

The line closest to Yongphyong-do, is 8.5 miles and contains three HARTs (Above). The second line is approximately 9 miles from Yonphyong-do and also contains three HARTs.  The third line is nearly 10 miles from Yonphyong-do and contains 6 HARTs.

The DPRK is also increasing capacities at it the closest fortified air force base in Kiam-ri, Thaethan County (기암리, 태탄군).



Pictured above are two satellite images of the Thaethan air force base in North Korea.  The top image is dated 2011-6-13. The lower image is dated 2012-9-21. The lower image has two highlight boxes.  In the box to the right, we can see the construction of 36 revetments which would be used to shield deployed artillery positions.In the box to the right, we can see an expansion of housing for use by the soldiers stationed at this base.

I have written previously about new KPA construction in the area here and here (photo). Joseph Bermudez also wrote about  a new hovercraft base in South Hwanghae.


Felix Abt interview

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Felix Abt, author of A Capitalist in North Korea and founder of the DPRK’s Pyongsu Pharmaceutical Factory, did an online interview in which he discusses  some of the surprising quirks of living in North Korea…such as getting locked out of your LinkedIn account (we blogged about this back in March 2009).

Here is a blurb:

Is North Korea Now Open for Business?

Not quite. But Abt tells me he believes opening up to commerce has “become a more important priority” for the North Korean government over the past ten years.

“I’m getting a lot of proactive proposals from the North Koreans, which we haven’t experienced in the past, so there is quite a big change on that front,” Abt says. “My business partners in Pyongyang can use [file-sharing service] Dropbox, they can travel more often now, and more North Korean companies have been allowed, particularly in 2012, to interact with foreign ones.”

Still, obstacles exist for anyone seeking to do business in this most frontier of frontier markets.

Power cuts are frequent, infrastructure is crumbling, and sanctions remain strict. On the other hand, Abt says the hardships he encountered cemented deep personal bonds between him and his colleagues.

“We had to solve practical problems every day; it was a daily struggle that brought us close,” Abt recalls. “We worked hard together, but we also partied together, went to karaoke, had good dinners, went on excursions, and had fun together. I never had the feeling that I was an alien in their eyes or a potential enemy or a spy — the relationship was quite relaxed and friendly, driven by our joint goals.”

Abt and staff members celebrate International Women’s Day in Pyongyang (Photo: Felix Abt)

So, would he do it again?

“I like to go back from time to time to eat some good food and have a merry evening, but otherwise, of course, I am happy where I am now,” Abt says.

“Seven years is a long time.”

Read the full interview here.


DPRK launches cooking web site

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

According to KCNA (2013-1-16):

Cooking Website Opened in DPRK

Pyongyang, January 16 (KCNA) — The Korean Association of Cooks opened a website “Korean Dishes”.

In this regard, KCNA met An Song Il, an official at the Sojae Cooking Information Exchange Company.

He said:

“The number of website visitors is on a steady increase, most of them being housewives.

The website offers cooking knowledge, experience and techniques. It also gives information and multimedia about Korean and foreign cuisines kitchen utensils and nearly 8 000 cooking methods.”

Kim Un Sim, a technician at the Hwanghae Iron and Steel Complex, said:

“I had needed to read cookbooks when I had to make a special dish.

But I can easily get cooking information through the website and learn a lot of cooking techniques.”

Ri Won Hui, a cook at the Ansanjong Restaurant in Pyongyang, said:

“The website is very helpful to upgrading cooking techniques and improving quality of dishes.”

The website was awarded the certificate of best software products at the 23rd National Software Contest and Exhibition.


A Semantic Network Analysis of Changes in North Korea’s Economic Policy

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Published by the journal Governance
Authors: Changyong Choi and Jesse D. Lecy

Download a PDF of the article here.


To shed light on the inner workings of policymaking in North Korea, this study examined the process behind economic policy change through an analysis of the official state economics journal (Journal of Economic Research 경제연구). Semantic networks are used to trace the introduction and evolution of policies during four distinct economic periods in North Korean history between 1986 and 2009. Although reform is catalyzed by political and economic crises, the emergence of new policy topics occurs incrementally prior to change. Specifically, new policy discourse tends to emerge in gradual and cautious ways but policy change occurs swiftly in periods of crisis. During periods of stability, the state retreats to the centralized socialist economic system, often through coercion and force. This view of the policy process suggests that foundations of economic reforms in North Korea are yet weak and instable, and policy reform will continue to be vulnerable to the political influence of conservatives.


The future of Kim Il-sung University

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

UPDATE 1 (2017-5-10): Building No. 3 was completed as part of the “Ryomyong Street” project.  According to the Pyongyang Times:

New building added to Kim Il Sung University

Building No. 3 has been unveiled at Kim Il Sung University located in the area of Ryongnam Hill which has been renovated along with landmark Ryomyong Street.

With an area of over 70 000 square metres, the building has well-equipped and multi-functional lecture rooms and labs, a sports field and welfare facilities.

An opening event was held on May 9.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-1-15): The campus of Kim Il-sung University has been the site of high-profile renovations and additions: the construction of the indoor swimming pool and renovation of the main building which includes an electronic library. The school also features a peculiar construction site that has made little progress over the years:


Pictured Above (Google Earth): (L) Kim Il-sung University on 2006-11-11, (R) Kim Il-sung University on 2012-6-20

Given the prestigious position the university holds in the DPRK I have often wondered what the hold up is on this site. Is it a funding issue? Is it a capacity (demand) issue? I still don’t know.

My curiosity about the construction project was raised again when I stumbled on this tourist photo taken at the Three Revolutions Exhibition (image date 2011-9-19):

The image features a new facility called the Kim Il-sung University Building No. 3 and it bears a resemblance to the construction site shown on the satellite imagery above.

That was interesting, but not really worth blogging about. However, on 2012-10-1 North Korean television aired a show about Kim Jong-il’s guidance in helping the school grow. The footage included this scene:

The proposed “Building No. 3” in this image is not entirely consistent with the artist rendering at the Three Revolutionas Exhibition, but it is similar. It is consistent with the satellite imagery, however.  We can also see that in addition to building No. 3 there are long term plans to to build yet another office/classroom building and a large stadium. Pyongyang could use another large stadium, right?