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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.

But we were waiting for the day when Koryolink would begin offering mobile internet, and hounded the Egyptians posted to North Korea from Orascom Telecom Media and Technology for news.

"Soon," they kept telling us.

Last week, they called with good news: 3G mobile internet would be available within a week - but only for foreigners.

All we had to do when we arrived in February was show our passports, fill out a registration form, provide our phones' IMEI numbers and pop in our Koryolink SIM cards. It's a costly luxury: SIM cards are €50 ($64), and while calls to Switzerland are an inexplicably cheap 38 euro cents (49¢) a minute, calls to the US cost about $8 a minute.

After paying a steep €75 ($96) fee and sending a text to activate the service, we waited for the 3G symbol to pop up on our phones.After reporting last week on the imminent availability of 3G mobile internet, we turned up at the Koryolink offices on Monday to be among the first ones to activate the service.

Moments later, I sent the inaugural tweet, which was queued up and ready to go. There was a little celebration that morning in the Koryolink office among the Egyptians who laboured to set up the service, and their North Korean partners.

Our North Korean colleagues watched with surprise as we showed them we could surf the internet from our phones.

Koreans, North and South, love gadgets.

Not all North Koreans have local mobile phones. Those who do use them to call colleagues to arrange work meetings, phone and text friends to set up dinner dates, and ring home to check in on their babies. They snap photos with their phones and swap MP3s. They read North Korean books and the Workers' Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on their phones.

But they cannot surf the "international" internet, as they call it. The world wide web remains strictly off limits for most North Koreans. North Korean universities have their own fairly sophisticated intranet system, though the material posted to it is closely vetted by authorities and hews to propaganda. Students say they can email one another, but they can't send emails outside the country.

Leader Kim Jong Un has pushed science and technology as major policy directives, and we're starting to see more laptops in North Korean offices. The new Samjiyon tablet computer, made in China for the North Korean market, was sold out when I last checked at a local computer shop.

Even during the days when no mobile data was available, Guttenfelder figured out a way to activate wi-fi sharing between his laptop and iPod touch and iPhone, and began posting geolocated pictures to Instagram. Using Loopcam, I began uploading small GIF videos that have the feel of an old-fashioned flipbook, giving movement and life to the scene on the street.


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