By Kim Young-jin
The number of North Koreans with a state-approved cell phone topped 185,000 as of the end of June, operator Orascom Telecom said Thursday, as more citizens have mobile access after a recent government expansion of services.
Egypt’s Orascom, which operates the mobile operator Koryolink in partnership with the North Korean regime, said in a first-half report that services have expanded to several cities other than Pyongyang and that 184,531 subscribers had signed up as of June 30.
Sixty percent of citizens now technically have access to the services, the firm said. But the network reportedly excludes cities near the border with South Korea as authorities fear the proximity could allow cross-border communication.
The number of subscribers has increased by some 60,000 since March and almost quadrupled from the same month last year, the report said, making a significant contribution to Orascom’s first half customer base growth.
It also showed an increase in usage, with the average mobile phone user spending 16 more minutes on the phone per month in the second quarter of the year than the first.
According to the Egyptian firm, foreigners, middle-class citizens and young people are all taking advantage of the new services.
But Radio Free Asia said Wednesday that North Koreans have to pay a steep price to go mobile. Customers must pay up to the equivalent of $250 for a phone in addition to high-priced prepaid minutes, it reported, citing sources in the North.
Still, Orascom’s numbers suggest that legal cell phone use could be gaining its strongest foothold yet.
In late 2002, a limited mobile service was launched, but citizens were banned from using them again just eighteen months later.
But in a major industry surprise, Orascom was awarded a 3G license in 2008 and started commercial operations in 2009.
The firm is also completing the construction of a towering hotel in the North ahead of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s late founder, Kim Il-sung, through its construction arm.