North Korea is to grant foreigners access to mobile internet service while in the country, but its citizens remain cut off from 3G signals. Starting next week, foreigners will be allowed to purchase monthly mobile Internet data plans for use with a USB modem or on mobile devices using their SIM cards. Prices for the service haven’t been announced yet.
The service will be offered by provider Koryolink within the next week. Koryolink, a joint venture between Korea Post & Telecommunications Corporation and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding SAE, informed foreign residents in Pyongyang on Friday that it will launch a third generation, or 3G, mobile Internet service no later than March 1.
Foreign visitors to North Korea can now purchase SIM cards at the airport or at Koryolink shops for 50 euros ($70).
Calls abroad range from 0.38 euros a minute to Switzerland and France and more than 5 euros a minute to the U.S. Calls to South Korea remain prohibited.
The announcement comes just weeks after North Korea began allowing foreigners to bring their own cellphones into the country to use with Koryolink SIM cards, reversing a longstanding rule requiring most visitors to relinquish their phones at customs and leaving many without easy means of communication with the outside world.
The two changes in policy mean foreigners in North Korea will have unprecedented connectivity while living, working or traveling in a country long regarded as one of the most isolated nations in the world.
However, wireless Internet will not yet be offered to North Koreans, who are governed by a separate set of telecommunication rules from foreigners. North Koreans will be allowed to access certain 3G services, including SMS and MMS messaging, video calls and subscriptions to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper – but not the global Internet.
The lack of Internet access in North Korea has put the country at the bottom of Internet freedom surveys. Though North Korea is equipped for broadband Internet, only a small, approved segment of the population has access to the World Wide Web.
During a visit to Pyongyang early last month, Google’s executive chairman pressed the North Koreans to expand access to the Internet. Eric Schmidt noted that it would be “very easy” for North Korea to offer Internet on Koryolink’s fast-expanding 3G cellphone network.
“As the world becomes increasingly connected, the North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth,” he wrote in a Jan. 20 blog post after returning to the United States. “It will make it harder for them to catch up economically. It is their choice now, and in my view, it’s time for them to start, or they will remain behind.”