, BEIJING, Jan 20 – Foreigners visiting North Korea can now take their own mobile phones into the country, Chinese state media reported Sunday, citing an employee with the operator of the country’s mobile network.
A technician with Koryolink, the North Korean-Egyptian joint venture that operates the 3G phone network, told China’s official Xinhua news agency that the move took effect on January 7.
“We have tried hard to negotiate with the Korean security side, and got the approval recently,” the technician, identified as an Egyptian, said, adding: “It has nothing to do with the Google trip.”
Earlier this month, Google chairman Eric Schmidt made a high profile visit to North Korea and said in Beijing after the trip he told officials in the North that the country would not develop unless it embraced Internet freedom.
“Once the Internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it,” Schmidt said. “The government has to do something. It has to make it possible for people to use the Internet which the government in North Korea has not yet done.”
Highly secretive North Korea has a domestic Intranet service with a limited number of users. Analysts say access to the Internet is for the country’s super-elite only, meaning a few hundred people or maybe 1,000 at most.
The Egyptian technician said foreigners need to fill out a form to provide their phone’s IMEI – International Mobile Station Equipment Identity – number with North Korea’s customs agency to bring in their personal device.
Previously, foreigners were required to leave their phones with customs and pick them up when leaving the country, the report said.
The technician also told Xinhua that foreigners using a phone based on the WCDMA 3G mobile standard can buy a SIM card in North Korea from Koryolink for 50 euros ($67) and make international calls.
Mobile Internet service will also be available soon for foreigners in North Korea, Xinhua said.
“It is not a technical problem, we just wait for” North Korean approval, the Koryolink employee said.
North Korea’s 3G mobile network has 1.8 million users, Xinhua said, though beyond voice calls their options are limited to text messages and video calls.
Their phones can’t make international calls or connect to the Internet, while North Koreans and foreigners can’t call each other because of different settings on their SIM cards, Xinhua said.
Google’s Schmidt accompanied Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, on the trip, which also involved talks with North Korea about an American citizen detained in the country.
Efforts to “strongly urge” North Korea to increase the use of the Internet were “the main success of the visit”, Richardson said in Beijing.