North Korea's Own Smartphone
May 18, 2014

North Korea’s Own Smartphone

They are probably reluctant to spend state money on the products of the US imperialist dogs, such as Apple products, and certainly are unlikely to use the South Korean maker Samsung. They are notoriously inward looking, and consequently North Korea says it is relying on its own abilities in order to product its own smartphone: the Aririang.

But not unlike with its nuclear weapons program, it is believed that North Korea actually needed outside help to make its smartphone. Like with nuclear weapons, it is thought that Apple secretly helped out with technological and design assistance. Okay, that’s obviously a joke. Experts believe a lot of assistance came from China in developing the phone. (I’ll leave it to those more knowledgeable than me to decide where the nuclear weapons help came from.)

But it is possible that the operating system is Western. When North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was seen demoing the phone, it appeared that it used Google’s Android. The BBC says that further details about the device are difficult to find, but quote Kim Jong Un as praising the “high pixels” of the built-in camera, a quote taken from the KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency. The KCNA also said Mr. Kim was excited about the “educational significance in making people love Korean things.” He directed factory workers to “select and produce shapes and colours that users like.” The factory concerned, though, is actually thought only to inspect the phones after they come, made to order, from China.

Regular cell phones have been available in the secretive state since 2008, but are heavily restricted, with Internet access only available to top level officials and calls outside the country subject to strict control. In other words, even those relatively few people who do have a cell phone are unable to call outside of North Korea, unless they are at the highest level of society. It is thought people near the borders covertly use illegal devices to make calls outside the country, and the BBC quotes one man who fled North Korea — or defected, to use Cold War terminology — as saying, “in order to make sure the mobile phone frequencies are not being tracked, I would fill up a washbasin with water and put the lid of a rice cooker over my head while I made a phone call.”

North Korea also unveiled its Samjiyon tablet last year, although it is believed that too was made in China, with links to a manufacturer in Hong Kong. This information comes from an interesting site called North Korea Tech. The site also says that although not thought to be capable of manufacturing hardware of this kind, North Korea does do software, possibly because it is more important that it has control over that side of things (the information and education side). North Korea Tech says that the software is similar to Android, so maybe that is what Kim Jong Un could be seen using on the smartphone.

One other really interesting thing on the site was an interview with Will Scott, a computer scientist from Washington State, who had spent a few months as a guest lecturer at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). That North Korea has such a place, and that the students were excited to talk to him and get to know him — chatting about sports, dating and various subjects as long as they were not politics — shows a different side of North Korea from the dark and often ridiculous side usually portrayed (accurate though that side sadly is). He also said that Internet restrictions for those few who could use it at the university often came at the physical level, rather than all sites being blocked. In other words, cure (punishment) rather than prevention (blocking). Ironically, much of the blocking came from the USA end when the sites detected a North Korean IP address.

It should be noted, though, that to get into such an institution at all, students will almost certainly have well-connected families, and such luxuries are a million miles away for most North Koreans, just as smartphones are.

Image Credit: KCNA

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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