There are many Android phones on the market, but they all seem to have similar features. While there are interesting devices like the Nothing Phone, mainstream phones don’t generate much excitement anymore. At MWC 2023, we saw some exciting concepts, but they won’t be available for some time.
To truly escape the monotony of today’s smartphones, we need to look to a place where such devices cannot be sold. North Korea’s government only allows its citizens to use smartphones created by the government, which monitors and controls their use. Although we can’t get our hands on them, there is plenty of information available that sheds light on the world of North Korean smartphones.
Smartphones were first introduced in North Korea in 2002, and then banned from 2004 to 2008. The ban was lifted when Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding, a telecommunications company in Egypt, teamed up with the North Korean government to create a new 3G mobile phone service called Koryolink. Huawei helped build North Korea’s 3G network alongside China’s state-owned Panda, which breached U.S. sanctions. Today, Koryolink is still in use with 3G as the standard, although Huawei may have stopped maintaining the network in 2016.
Residents in North Korea can only access their intranet, but long-term foreign residents and visitors can access the internet. North Korea only had three Wi-Fi access points in 2020, so downloading movies on the go is not an option. If you’re not a resident and want access to the Koryolink network, you can expect to spend around $285 for a SIM card and $23 for 50MB of 3G data.
What phones do North Korean residents use? There is little information available, but there are glimpses of phones with unique features such as built-in mosquito repellants and a Google Drive icon that opens a screensaver app. Lumen Global, a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing information with North Korean people, has collected the following information about the Arirang family of smartphones.
Five years after launching Koryolink, North Korea announced its first smartphone, the AS1201, which was named after a Korean folk song. Supposedly made in North Korea, Kim Jong-un himself toured the Arirang factory to promote the device. However, the phone was not original and was made in China. In 2016, the Arirang 151 was released, followed by the Arirang 161 in 2017, the latter of which featured a fingerprint sensor.
Following the Arirang series were the Jindallae and the Phurunhanul H1 and H2 series. The Jindallae 3 claimed to be produced locally, but a quick comparison with the Samsung S7 and iPhone 6s suggests otherwise. The Phurunhanul H1 was the first smartphone by Phurunhanul Electronics, and little is known about it. The Pyongyang brand includes many North Korean smartphones, such as the Pyongyang 1202 and the Pyongyang 2423.
North Korean smartphones come with pre-installed apps, and users don’t have a choice over what apps they can download. The Kiltongmu phone, a clone of the Samsung Note 8, came with “30 dictionaries, programs, entertainment, and [other] media that are popular among users.” Many iOS apps have been copied for use in North Korean smartphones, and there are plenty of mystery apps, such as Hiding, which could be anything from a game to a chat app. All activities on North Korean smartphones are monitored by the government.
In conclusion, North Korean smartphones would not survive in today’s competitive global smartphone market. Nevertheless, they offer insight into how the North Korean government viewed popular smartphones when creating their own devices. While your phone may not be as unique, it’s still reassuring to appreciate your freedoms and take precautions to protect your digital privacy.