“Hello world from comms center in #Pyongyang.”
That Twitter missive, sent on Monday from Koryolink’s main service center in downtown Pyongyang using my iPhone, marked a milestone for North Korea: It was believed to be the first tweet sent from a mobile phone using the country’s new 3G mobile data service.
Later, as we were driving through Pyongyang, I used my iPhone to snap a photo of a new roadside banner referring to North Korea’s controversial Feb. 12 nuclear test, while The Associated Press’ chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder uploaded an image to Instagram of a tour guide at a mountain temple, geotagged to Pyongyang.
Pretty ordinary stuff in the world of social media, but revolutionary for North Korea, a country with intricate rules to stage manage the flow of images and information, both inside and beyond its borders.
In the past, rules were strict for tourists visiting North Korea. On a bus journey across the Demilitarized Zone into the border city of Kaesong in 2008, we were told: No mobile phones, no long camera lenses, no shooting photos without permission.
The curtains were drawn to prevent us from looking outside as we drove through the countryside and through the cracks we could see soldiers stationed along the road with red flags. We were warned they would raise those flags and stop the bus for inspection if they spotted a camera pointed out the window.
As we left North Korea, immigration officials went through our cameras, clicking through the photos to make sure we were not taking home any images that were objectionable.
In 2009, I did not offer up my iPhone as we went through customs, but to no avail. The eagle-eyed officer dug deep into the pocket where I had tucked the phone away, wagged his finger and slipped the phone into a little black bag. No phone, no address book, no music: It was as though I had left the modern world behind at Sunan airport and stepped back in time to a seemingly prehistoric analogue era.
Eventually, Guttenfelder and I settled into a working routine. We would leave our mobile phones at the airport, but use locally purchased phones with SIM cards provided by Koryolink, the joint Egyptian-North Korean phone venture that established a 3G network in 2008, but without data. We brought iPod Touches and connected to the world, including Twitter, using broadband Internet that may be installed on request at our hotel, which is for international visitors.
We knew in January that change was afoot.
“Bring your own phone next time,” a Koryolink saleswoman told me at the airport as we were departing.
The next day, the longstanding rule of requiring visitors to relinquish their phones was gone, but we were waiting for the day when Koryolink would begin offering mobile Internet and hounded the Egyptians posted to North Korea from Orascom Telecom Media and Technology for news.
“Soon,” they kept telling us.
Last week, they called with good news: 3G mobile Internet would be available within a week — only for foreigners.
All we had to do when we arrived last month was show our passports, fill out a registration form, provide our phones’ IMEI numbers and pop in our Koryolink SIM cards. It is a costly luxury: SIM cards are US$70 and while calls to Switzerland are inexplicably cheap, calls to the US cost about US$8 a minute.
After reporting last week on the imminent availability of 3G mobile Internet, we turned up at the Koryolink offices on Monday to be among the first to activate the service.