North Korea's isolated "hermit kingdom" has finally manufactured its first home-grown smartphone—or has it? An expert on North Korean technology says the new smartphone was probably made in China and shipped to a North Korean factory for display.
Recent photos have shown Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, inspecting the "Arirang" phone named after a popular Korean folk song. The new phone apparently runs on Google's Android operating system and has a built-in camera, according to BBC News.
But the handset's lineage is probably Chinese rather than Korean, says Martyn Williams, owner of the website North Korean Tech. Williams pointed out how the photos of Kim Jong Un's visit to the factory in the capital Pyongyang only show workers inspecting the new phones rather than performing any manufacturing activities.
Williams previously showed how North Korea's "homemade" tablet, called the Samjiyon, actually originated from a Hong Kong manufacturer. (Still, North Korea's supposed technical expertise isn't all a lie—the country seems to have a small but growing IT industry that accepts foreign contracts.)
The new Arirang phone will likely serve customers of North Korea's Koryolink domestic mobile phone service, operated by the Egyptian firm Orascom. The Egyptian telecom claimed to provide service to over 600 000 North Koreans as of June 2011.
Koryolink customers face a number of limitations, according to a 2012 report titled "A Quiet Opening." All calls are monitored by North Korean authorities, and Koryolink phones cannot make international calls or access the Internet.
However, many North Koreans living near the Chinese border have used illegal Chinese phones to make international calls to friends, relatives or business partners. Such phone calls on the illegal phones have allowed North Koreans to conduct black market trade, ask for foreign money transfers, find out the latest international news, and even plan defections.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.