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Mobile technology industry budding in N. Korea
Only the privileged use smart devices
By Nam Hyun-woo
Life inside of North Korea has always been a subject of great curiosity to people around the world.
Since the cloistered regime refuses to show much of what goes on inside its borders ― except for occasional displays of missiles and military parades ― many speculate that North Koreans still live in the past, especially when it comes to mobile technology.
For the most part, they’re right. However, there is a budding mobile technology industry in North Korea, if only for privileged citizens there.
In August the North’s mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), posted a photo of its leader Kim Jong-un inspecting a factory in which an employee was packaging a product that seemed to be a smartphone.
The KCNA reported that, “He (Kim) learned in detail about the performance, quality and packing of the Arirang mobile phone being made at this factory.”
According to the KCNA, the Arirang smartphone is powered by Android OS and produced entirely in North Korea.
The news agency did not release any other information on the gadget’s hardware or features, but it claimed Arirang’s camera has “high pixels.”
IT experts speculate that the phone would be similar to or a carbon copy of smartphones made by Chinese manufacturers. An IT product commentary website, GSM Insider, claimed earlier this month that “the true identity of Arirang is a Chinese smartphone maker, Uniscope’s XC2 W1231.”
The W1231 has a 5-inch full HD display made by Japanese company Sharp and is powered by 1.5 GHz CPU. It runs on an Android Jelly Bean platform. Compared to the latest smarphones selling on the global market, its hardware does not underperform, but GSM Insider said, “Actual products selling in the North’s market would be different from W 1231 in some hardware parts, software or Internet connectivity.”
North Korea kicked off a third-generation (3G) mobile phone service in December 2008 and it announced that the reclusive nation’s mobile service operator Koryolink hit 2 million subscribers in June. The North has allowed the use of cell phones between 2002 and 2004 through a joint venture with Thailand, but cut it off without any explanation.
Earlier last month, Apple, Microsoft and Nokia revealed their brand-new tablet PCs and the media was overwhelmed by articles about customer experiences the gadgets provided.
Unfortunately, however, those are not available for North Koreans. Instead of Apple or Microsoft products, they have Samjiyon, which the regime claims is a tablet PC built with domestic technology.
Debuted last year at the Eighth Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair, the gadget drew lots of attention from people outside of the Stalinist country. And many tech experts made a simple conclusion: “Samjiyon is no threat to iPad.”
On Oct. 22, the 38 North website (38north.org) posted a review report of the Samjiyon SA-70 tablet written by a North Korea expert, Professor Ruediger Frank at the University of Vienna. He said he bought the tablet in March at a shop in Pyongyang, adding that his Samjiyon is not the latest model.
Frank said the tablet has a 1 GHz CPU, 1 GB of RAM, 4 GB of internal memory and a micro SD card slot, equipped with an 8 GB card. He said the screen was 7 inches, but the resolution was 800×480 pixels.
Compared to Apple’s latest iPad Air with its 9.7-inch display and 2048×1536 pixels, and Microsoft’s Surface 2 with 1920×1080 pixels, Samjiyon’s display is remarkably below standard, along with its other hardware.
With a size of 196x123x12 millimeters, the SA-70 weighed 250 grams, which is similar to Google Nexus 7 tablet. He wrote that the battery lasted for 10 hours in audio mode and 5 hours in computer mode. Seen on the back side of the tablet are the brand name of the tablet, Samjiyon, and the manufacturer of it, the Korea Computer Center.
Its platform seems to be a slightly modified version of Android 4.0.4 “Ice Cream Sandwich,” which is a slightly outdated version, given that newly released tablets are equipped with the Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.
The tablet provides a number of pre-installed applications. They include a fully functional Microsoft Office package consisting of Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Some games, including Angry Birds, dictionaries for foreign languages and e-books lauding the country’s juche (self-reliance) ideology were also provided, he wrote.
Frank wrote that he spent some 180 euros ($248.71) and added, “This is one of the few cases in my career as a consumer when I got more for my money than I had expected.”
In terms of connectivity, however, it was reclusive as the country. Frank said, “There seems to be no option to connect to the Internet,” since there is no slot for an LAN connecting port or SIM card, which enables a mobile device to work as a telephonic device. He said a clerk at the shop he bought the Samjiyon demonstrated for him how to access the country’s intranet, but he could not find a way to access the Internet.
Meanwhile, a question still lingers over whether the country’s technicians really made this gadget with their homegrown technology. In August, a tech-oriented North Korea news portal, NorthKoreaTech.org, claimed that the tablet was made in Taiwan, unlike what the country’s state-run media’s reported.
The report said, “The tablet is almost certainly not made in North Korea — the country just doesn’t have the electronics manufacturing capability to design products like tablet computers from the components up.”
It argued that Samjiyon’s hidden Android system file shows that the device is built by Yecon, a Hong Kong-based manufacturers of tablet computer components. Since the Yecon components are not exclusive to Samjiyon, it is possible to see very similar tablets on sale from other companies, such as one from Taiwanese maker Clevo, which have almost identical design and hardware to Samjiyon.
Frank said that the gadget is not available to all North Koreans; just as a Mercedes Benz is out of reach for most Germans. “Most North Koreans are worried about food and heating, not about electronic gadgets. The existence of this tablet does not change the fact that the country is of hard manual labor and simple living conditions,” he said.