Yep. Ironically, given the recent events in Egypt, the North’s sole cellphone provider is an Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom. Their North Korean subsidiary, called Koryolink, reportedly has over 300,000 customers in 10 cities, all on 3G (wish I could say the same about my AT&T service in DC …).
Cellphones were banned for several years after a rumored assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il in 2004, an attempt that may have used a cellphone to ignite the blast that blew up a train station shortly after the “Dear Leader’s” train passed. Nearly five years went by before Orascom signed a deal with the North Korean government, in December 2008, to launch a national cellphone service. The service reportedly allows access to North Korea’s internal Internet (no connection though, to the outside world’s Internet), plus text messaging. However, the price of a phone (approx. $190) and service ($1 per minute!) puts the network out of reach for all but the richest North Korean citizens – for comparison, the average monthly salary in North Korea is roughly $8, making the phone alone cost over 20 times that average salary. (Information in this paragraph is translated from a recent article in Sisa Journal, one of the South’s leading newsmagazines).
Orascom’s Koryolink is a domestic-only system and unrelated to the Chinese cellular network used by defector organizations in South Korea to get information out of the North. More on that system, and its effectiveness, can be found in a previous post.
UPDATE (13 April): A report in today’s JoongAng Daily says mobile phone use has jumped 50% in the North since September, to a total of 450,000 users. From zero to 450,000 in less than three years – not bad, the North keeps this up and it’s going to wind up on someone’s list of countries with the fastest growing rate of cellphone adoption.
UPDATE (8 March): Koryo, from Koryolink, is the name of an ancient Korean dynasty and forms the basis of the English word, Korea. Koryo is a popular term in the North due to the former dynasty’s origin in the northern part of the Korean peninsula (plus its control of Chinese territory and defeat of Chinese armies … but I doubt the North raises that point much with China’s current rulers). An example of the term’s popularity is the name of the North’s national airline, Air Koryo, the airline I took from Beijing to Pyongyang.