You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

North Korea Revokes 3G Internet Service for Foreign Visitors

BY Julia Wetherell | Wednesday, March 27 2013

A Koryo Tours Manager took a shot of Pyongyang on Instagram on March 6. Source.

North Korea's brief foray into 3G Internet service, exclusively intended for tourists, has ended as of this week. A relaxation of strict prohibitions against mobile devices for foreign visitors in this winter was followed by the opening of the country’s data network in February. Officials in the country have now announced they will terminate the service, as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula.

Over the month that 3G was available the outside world witnessed a remarkable level of cultural flow from visitors within the DPRK, from real-time Instagram uploads depicting scenes of life in the country to social media updates from former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman, who paid a bizarre diplomatic visit to Kim Jong Un with the Harlem Globetrotters in February.  Google executive Eric Schmidt also made a private trip to the country in January, though he was not received by the Supreme Leader. 

The high cost of connecting to the network did not seem to deter tourists from getting online.  Koryo Tours, the North Korean travel agency that provides the only touring option in the country, was an early adapter and frequent user of the service. The group announced that Internet access would no longer be accessible on their website this week, saying that SIM cards will be available for international calls.

The convergence of these recent incidents seem to point to attempts by North Korean leadership to strengthen the country’s technological sector – or at least to bolster the image of a tech sector that exists.  Yet if that is the case, these efforts are coming at a vexing time diplomatically for the DPRK.  After a recent round of nuclear tests, the country cut its last remaining military communications hotline to South Korea today, amid continuing threats of retaliation against the South and the United States. 

Before 3G access was revoked, there were no plans to bring connectivity to North Korean citizens.  Only a tiny fraction of the country’s population has regular access to a state-run Intranet, and an even smaller group – likely limited to the families of top officials – can connect to the worldwide Internet.  Ordinary citizens have been known to risk imprisonment to get online, using smuggled Chinese phones to tap into 3G connection speeds. 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.