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Tweets allow peek at life in North Korea

Jean H. Lee (via AP/ SMH) | Feb. 28, 2013
North Korea has switched on its new 3G mobile data service for foreigners travelling to the country.

A nurse comforts a baby at a nursery inside Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

 Photo: AP/ David Guttenfe

"Hello world from comms centre in #Pyongyang."

That Twitter missive, sent on Monday from Koryolink's main service centre in downtown Pyongyang using my iPhone, marked a milestone for North Korea: it was believed to be the first tweet sent from a mobile phone using the country's new 3G mobile data service. 

Later, as we were driving through Pyongyang, I used my iPhone to snap a photo of a new roadside banner referring to North Korea's controversial February 12 nuclear test while the Associated Press' chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder shot an image of a commuter walking beneath a bridge at dusk. We uploaded these images to Instagram geotagged "Pyongyang".

Pretty ordinary stuff in the world of social media, but revolutionary for North Korea, a country with an intricate set of rules designed to stage manage the flow of images and information both inside and beyond its borders.

In the past, rules were strict for tourists visiting North Korea. On a bus journey across the Demilitarised Zone into the border city of Kaesong in 2008, we were told: no mobile phones, no long camera lenses, no shooting photos without permission. T

he curtains were drawn to prevent us from looking outside as we drove through the countryside, and through the cracks we could see soldiers stationed along the road with red flags. We were warned they'd raise those flags and stop the bus for inspection if they spotted a camera pointed out the window. As we left North Korea, immigration officials went through our cameras, clicking through the photos to make sure we weren't taking home any images that were objectionable.

In 2009, I did not offer up my iPhone as we went through customs. But to no avail. The eagle-eyed officer dug deep into the pocket where I'd tucked the phone away, wagged his finger and slipped the phone into a little black bag. No phone, no address book, no music: it was as though I'd left the modern world behind at Sunan airport and stepped back in time to a seemingly prehistoric analogue era.

Eventually, Guttenfelder and I settled into a working routine. We'd leave our mobiles at the airport but use locally purchased phones using SIM cards provided by Koryolink, the joint Egyptian-North Korean mobile venture that established a 3G network in 2008, but without data. We brought iPod Touches and connected to the world, including Twitter, using broadband internet that may be installed on request at our hotel, which is for international visitors.

We knew in January that change was afoot. "Bring your own phone next time," a Koryolink saleswoman told me at the airport as we were departing. The next day, the long-standing rule of requiring visitors to relinquish their phones was gone.


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