For a country that has been in isolation for decades, a spike in the number of cell phone and WiFi users, to the extent of more than a quarter, is indeed a noticeable phenomenon. A recent study by a team of US researchers shows that mobile devices are fast becoming the mainstay of private and trading-related communication among North Koreans- a sign of the rising private and marketplace economy.
Up to 7 million people living in the isolated country of North Korea have been found to be using cell phones and WiFi networks daily. The team of US researchers that conducted the survey says that this is quite a significant expansion in the cell phone user base in the country in recent years. The rise from 6.5 million to more than 7 million in a population of 25 million is more than a quarter. It is to be noted that the country opened its doors to 3G network service providers in 2008.
Natalia Slavney and Martyn Williams of the 38 North program of Stimson Center in Washington said that the number of cellular subscribers in North Korea has been rising steadily over the last five to ten years. They concluded this after analyzing satellite images and surveying a cohort of about 40 defectors who fled the country between 2017 and 2021.
“More than 90% of the people who participated in the survey reported using the phone at least daily,” Natalia Slavney said. And the maximum number of calls were made either to family members or traders.
Martyn Williams said this is an interesting development, keeping in view the still-expanding cellular coverage in the country. “Sometimes we’re finding base stations where if you looked at the same area two years ago, the antenna was not there,” Williams added.
The Rise of North Korea’s Private Economy and Private Marketplaces
In the era of satellite communication, when the open markets are growing at a stellar pace, an economy cannot stay completely isolated for long. The recent rise in the number of cellular subscribers in North Korea is a sign of that development.
For a market economy to grow, it needs basic telephone and text messaging services, and North Korea has that. In the last five to ten years, the availability of these services has risen. Piggybacking the increase in WiFi network service providers, the private economy and private marketplaces have grown. With the influx of more service providers and the availability of cell phone brands, this growth will continue, and hopefully, become more sustainable in the years to come.