In a move that makes it harder for North Koreans to gain access to the global Internet, the Pyongyang government now allows mobile phone SIM cards used by tourists to be active only for the duration of their visit, tourism sources said.
Unlike North Koreans, foreigners visiting the isolated country can freely browse social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter using the Koryolink domestic network.
However, under a change made in July, North Korea deactivates the card when a visitor leaves, ensuring that it can not be left for use by a resident, the sources said.
It can be reactivated when a visitor returns to the country.
“This basically means in practical terms that if someone leaves the country they cannot simply leave their phone with a local friend and have them use the Internet,” said one source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of discussing such issues when working in North Korea.
The move could be linked to a broader crackdown on the exchange of information in North Korea, and according to the sources appeared to have been government-led.
More than 2.5 million North Koreans use the Koryolink network to make calls and browse an internal, heavily monitored domestic Internet.
Foreigners can use the network too — but on a separate cellular network that connects to the regular outside Internet.
It was not clear whether the new rule applied to contracts held by long-term residents or foreign diplomats.
Koryolink is a joint venture with Egypt’s Orascom Telecom.
Information in repressive North Korea is tightly controlled, but small storage devices, such as USB sticks or micro SD cards, have become popular in recent years for discretely sharing uncensored information such as videos, games, music and ebooks.
SIM cards used in telephones to access mobile networks are also easily concealed and experts say that the new policy could be linked to a wider crackdown.
Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a non-governmental organization that works with North Korean defectors, said Pyongyang has stepped up control of information flows under leader Kim Jong-un, who came to power in 2011 when his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, died.
Park was referring to a widespread crackdown on illegal foreign media and smuggled Chinese cellphones that are often used to make international calls from areas in North Korea within range of Chinese cellular towers along the border with China.
“It would make sense to close a loophole that might have seen some foreigners lend their SIM cards to North Koreans while they were away, since international phone calls and 3G access to the global Internet are a big breach of their information blockade with the outside world,” Park said.