[Holiday in North Korea] Using and buying consumer electronics in North Korea

A tablet computer made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar
A tablet computer made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar

By Jon Dunbar

Whenever I visit North Korea, I put all my belongings through a quarantine process. I inspect my pocket litter, the folds of my wallet and the bottom of my camera bag. During my 2018 visit, I almost brought a plastic sleeve for my passport that had the name of a travel agency written in Hangeul ― not Joseongeul, and trust me, they'll know the difference.

I also leave all electronics behind. Sure, many other foreign tourists, even Chinese ones, have brought Samsung devices into the reclusive country, but their phones aren't on the SK network. Probably nothing will happen, but I don't want to take the risk.

It's actually kind of nice, taking a vacation from my electronic devices, as well as all communication through them.

It also reinforces the perception of North Korea as a technological backwater, which is less and less true every year.

During my first visit in 2010, I recall on my flight in, as soon as we landed, one of the other passengers immediately pulled out his phone and made a call.

At that time, the Egyptian company Orascom was engaged in the Koryolink joint venture to establish a 3G network in Pyongyang. The company was reportedly working on a cellular antenna in the Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-story construction site at the time. I was eager to learn everything I could about the Ryugyong, and so I contacted Orascom asking if it would be possible to meet up with their representatives in Pyongyang while I was there. But communication was slow, with replies coming in slowly.

So I went to North Korea from Aug. 14 to 22, during which I was cut off from email. Afterwards when I visited a PC room in China, I found a new email waiting for me from Orascom: "I have sent your request to Koryolink and they would like to know the exact date you will be in PY to arrange a meeting with the CEO." Oh well, too late.

On my second visit in September 2018, Pyongyang was considerably more technologically sophisticated. The Ryugyong Hotel was now a giant LED screen broadcasting huge messages in the evening, and cellphones were commonplace. When we were visiting the Children's Palace in Pyongyang our guide, Michael Spavor, pulled out his phone and used the expensive network connection he paid for to look up pictures of the ongoing summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. Not a service available to locals, and reportedly not cheap, but it was hard to deny that the world was not here.

During that trip, I attended the Pyongyang International Autumn Trade Fair, where I bought up several consumer goods as souvenirs, including electronics. I walked away with a tablet computer and a smartwatch. I wish I could remember how much I paid, but I can't remember even what currency I paid in; all I can say is it wasn't much.

The tablet, holding 8 gigabytes of memory, was made by Achim, a joint venture between North Korea and China. When it turns on, it shows a high-quality image of Mount Paektu's crater lake and plays a fairly loud snippet of very North Korean-sounding music.

The default language is North Korean, which looks weird even to South Koreans. For instance, instead of "dasi sijak" like on computers down here, the reset button says "jegi-dong," reminding me of the neighborhood in northeastern Seoul. And the "connection" function, instead of "yeon-gyeol" says "ryeon-gyeol."

It is difficult to use mainly because there's not much to it, as it lacks usable apps and connectivity. At the time of purchase I had hoped it would be loaded with North Korean games, at least their equivalent of "Minesweeper," but no such luck. I also am unaware of how to download more apps, or if I even can without triggering some sort of international alert.

And the camera is terrible, like looking through a periscope into a fishbowl filled with water. I think it was installed sideways, because the view is rotated 90 degrees from what the camera should be seeing. The first four numbers in image file names are 1970, making me wonder what the default year of this device is set to.

A tablet computer made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar
A picture taken on the Achim tablet's camera / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar

A tablet computer made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar
A picture of the same view taken on a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 smartphone / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar

It charges over a generic micro USB just like any other mobile device of its ilk. The only ports are USB and an SD card slot, and I suspect it would probably be mostly used for watching videos circulated by SD card. It does have a headphone jack though; take that Apple!

My coworkers were highly impressed with this device, delighting even in the simple acts of browsing the apps and taking low-quality pictures. But some were worried it was sending data to North Korea. I've softened about security concerns, assuming if there is any subterfuge in the hardware, it's been known and patched in the last two and a half years.

A tablet computer made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar
A K3 Smart Bracelet made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar

The smartwatch, a "K3 Smart Bracelet" also from Achim, seemed a little more usable. It looked classy with a brown leather(?) strap. But while it could count my steps somewhat reliably, it was otherwise difficult to use. Each time it loses power, such as when the battery dies, all the settings ― date, time and language ― return to default. It also charges via micro USB, which initially alarmed me because I thought it could plant spyware on my computer.

The included USB cable's build quality was very low and after only brief use it started to fray at one end. It's easy enough to switch out a dead cable but where does one take North Korean electronics for after-service in South Korea in the event of a device malfunction?

I also bought a USB stick, branded "Daeyang USB 2.0," which has 14.8 gigabytes of storage. Currently I use it to store my North Korea photo archives for convenient access.

After I left, I discovered another surprise electronic device in my collection. My ticket to the Mass Games, a thick piece of plastic with my seat number and a QR code on one side (which now curiously links to a seemingly South Korean game in Google Play), could flip open and pop up a USB connector.

A tablet computer made by Achim / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar
Both sides of a ticket for a mass games event in Pyongyang, procured Sept. 21, 2018, with USB connector flipped open. / Courtesy of Jon Dunbar

I figured it would just be for a USB electronic ticketing system, albeit one I had no memory of interacting with. So I tried it out on a safe computer, only to find six MPG files, three in English and three in Chinese. They are titled "Masikryong," "Songdowon International Children's Camp" and "Kimilsungia, Flower of the Sun." I've loaded them onto the Achim tablet.

The Masikryong video is the most exciting, showing the North's Masikryong Ski Resort located near Wonsan on the east coast. If I were to make visits to North Korea a regular thing, I would have loved to visit this resort on my next visit. After Michael Spavor spent a weekend with Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-il somewhere around Wonsan, I noted that in one picture he was wearing a winter coat, while the trees were green and the others were dressed for summer. He told me he'd just been skiing at this resort, along with the members of Samjiyon Band, the North's top girl group, although I can't fact check this right now unfortunately.

The Songdowon video starts off with the narration, "World media recommend sending playful children to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in summer, as it has an oasis for them." The video shows some footage of children enjoying the camp, mixed with stock footage of the facilities devoid of any human activity. It contrasts the playfulness of the kids with the liminal spaces, whose remarkable architectural design bakes in ideological promises of North Korea in surprisingly charming ways. And like the Masikryong video, there is much footage toward the back of the place being enjoyed by foreigners, mostly children from various countries, including China, Vietnam, Tanzania and Russia, from what I could see.

The third video focuses on the flower named after Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founder, by Indonesian leader Sukarno. "Kimilsungia is known to the whole world with the august name of great man," the video says. It is significantly more propagandistic than the other two and less enticing.

It's unlikely we'll see North Korean consumer electronics available in the market down here any time soon, but it is somewhat reassuring to see their technological advances catching up with the rest of the world somewhat.

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