Feature Article

February 22, 2013

Foreign Tourists to Get Access to 3G in North Korea by Next Week

It's been one month since North Korea allowed foreign tourists to use their own cell phones on North Korean soil, but now, the country is stepping things up a bit by allowing those same tourists to use 3G mobile data on their phones by no later than March 1. However, as is the case with many stories that contain the words "North Korea," things get a lot less clear and a lot more baffling from there.

While North Korea is planning to open up the 3G network for travelers, people who actually live there will not be permitted access to the 3G network, even assuming they have a device that's capable of accessing the network. Few North Koreans actually own cell phones in the first place, so this isn't so much of an issue as some might think. But those who do have cell phones are limited in what they can access; specifically, they generally get access to messaging services and a subscription to the official state newspaper.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, recently visited North Korea along with a delegation of technology leaders to encourage greater openness in North Korea, and an improved focus on bringing more technology to the lives of its people. While this step doesn't do any of that, it is still a pretty big step for North Korea to take, offering up access to a network for even just foreigners. Schmidt mentioned on that trip that it wouldn't be difficult for North Korea to offer access to its entire population, calling such a move "very easy," but North Korea--or rather, North Korea's government--doesn't seem eager to rise to that particular challenge.

Additionally, while the 3G is set to be turned on for foreign travelers, no one has mentioned what kind of blocks, filters, monitoring systems or assorted other limitations will be put on those traveling devices, lest someone be browsing the news in a shop or restaurant or the like and stumble across news unfavorable to the regime. Some have wondered if this is a dodge on North Korea's part in a bid for more foreign aid, as North Korea has been commonly seen attempting to placate the more hard-line elements of the military with regular nuclear device tests. There's also the question of how many foreign tourists North Korea actually gets in the first place, but with a theme park in North Korea reportedly housing a destination for families separated by the division into North and South Korea to meet, there may be more such tourists than first realized.

Indeed, this is a step in the right direction for North Korea, and hopefully one that continues into the future. But it's really only a step, and a step that needs rapid follow-up in order to be truly effective and allowing its citizens more freedom.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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