In this photograph shared last week by North Korea’s official information agency, Kim Jong-un is seen at his desk during a strategy meeting, cigarette in hand, in front of a pile of documents. This in itself is not particularly shocking, but the South Korean media have been atwitter over the smartphone seen near the dictator’s right arm.
Immediately, speculation abounded over what brand the communist leader had selected. Had he splurged on an iPhone, or did he buy a Nokia, both of which are western brands — all the more surprising because the West remains the North Korean regime’s stated number-one enemy? Or did he purchase a phone produced by a capitalist Asian country? Samsung? LG?
One thing is certain: smartphone manufacturers were not fighting to claim this particular product placement.
In South Korea, some speculated that Samsung, a national company, had produced the phone. A Samsung spokesperson immediately denied the accusation. Taiwan-based HTC was also floated as a possibility, but when contacted by Wired, executives were evasive and reluctant to “be involved in discussions of the device”. Expert examination reveals that the iPhone is no longer a contender. So the mystery remains…
Smartphones are extremely rare in North Korea, which the Kim dynasty has ruled with an iron fist. Over the last decades, the regime has controlled all internal and external communications.
An Egyptian company set up a national mobile network in 2008, and North Korea is now estimated to have just under a million cell phone users (out of a population of 25 million). Naturally, clients cannot communicate with people outside North Korea, nor can they access the web. This privilege is reportedly limited to the dictator’s entourage and the country’s political elite.