I made my last, perhaps final, visit to North Korea in the spring of 2017. I wasn’t aware of its impending finality at the time—in fact, I had already begun to make plans to return there again in the fall—but such plans were dashed when, shortly after my return to Berlin where I was living, the Congress of the United States, the country that owns my passport, declared that Americans were no longer allowed to visit North Korea. It was my fifth visit to the country in as many years and, since then, I have constantly thought back to that last visit with a mixture of lingering regret, confusion, wonder, and indecipherability, combined with certain realizations that were both startling and, I suppose, inevitable. One memory that remains lodged in my mind is the extent to which my two North Korean guides—both women in their mid-twenties—were as addicted to their mobile phones as people of the same generation in South Korea.
Somewhat perversely, I always looked forward to the prospect of going offline; it was part of the ritual of visiting the place. There were no other options when I first started traveling to the country in 2012. Although I soon noticed that my guides—and nearly every citizen of Pyongyang—always had a mobile phone, coveted status objects for the rising middle class, these devices are, from an outsider’s perspective, extremely limited in use. For one, you cannot connect to the internet. While South Korea is one of the most connected places on earth, with one of the fastest wireless connections, North Koreans, save for a few elites working in the highest echelons of government, have no access to the internet whatsoever. Secondly, you cannot call outside the country. While in the beginning, mobile phones were used almost exclusively for calling and texting, upon my subsequent visits to North Korea, I began to notice they were being used for taking photos (including selfies), playing games, and, less frequently, for connecting to the country’s intranet, with its limited array of entertainment, news, information, educational tools, chatrooms, and domestic propaganda.1
On my first visits, foreign tourists were required to surrender their mobile phones to their guides upon arrival at the airport; your phone would be returned to you upon leaving the country. This policy changed, however, in 2013, as the mobile-phone carrier Koryolink introduced a new service for foreigners living, working, or visiting North Korea who wish to continue using their mobile phones. These SIM cards are designed with technology that restricts the user from being able to call or text North Korean numbers; they can only call or text other foreigners using the service within North Korea, or international numbers, thus enforcing the strict separation from foreign influence that the regime seeks to maintain among its populace. These SIM cards also allow the user to buy add-ons, including wireless internet access, although service can be patchy, depending on one’s location in the country. They are also exorbitantly expensive, and felt somewhat pointless to me, so I never bought one. The likelihood of ever having to call any other foreigner within the country was extremely low, as foreign tourists are forced to travel together as a group at all times, always under the supervision of North Korean guides; so unless I wanted to call a foreign embassy or aid worker, none of whom I knew personally, there was no real point in having one. What’s more, I didn’t want to be connected to the outside world. As I was traveling to North Korea out of a sense of fascination with the country and its global isolation, as well as for the ultimate purpose of writing a book, the process of cutting all ties became very much woven in to the project.
When we finish our tour of the museum, much of our own time is eaten up with Alexandre’s quest to buy an Arirang smartphone. He has been wanting one of these geek DPRK souvenirs for a long time but didn’t manage to buy one on his last stay here.
— Travis Jeppesen, See You Again in Pyongang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea (New York: Hachette, 2018), 108.
“They don’t want foreigners to have any of the local apps now,” Alek says. “I guess that includes the dictionary.”
Alexandre shrugs. “Then what’s the point of even owning this phone?”
“Just to call other foreigners, I guess.”
“You know what it is?” Alexandre whispers, now furious. “They don’t really want us to learn the language. Why else would they forbid foreigners from using a dictionary? The less we know, the better.”
Min suddenly appears before our table. “Everyone finished with your coffee? Let’s go!”
“Where are we off to now?”
She leans in for a whisper. “We’re going to try and get you the app.”
As I gave in to disconnection and immersed myself further in the IRL of this most idiosyncratic of places, my guides, I noticed, gradually became more removed from this world and more connected to the virtual, or at least to the somewhat limited version of the virtual that exists in Pyongyang. With each visit, the introduction of new devices became apparent—North Korea’s version of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets. Again, for outside eyes, these local appliances are more defined by their limitations than by the possibilities they seemed to present for North Korean consumers. This is particularly true with smart TVs—as anyone who has been to North Korea can tell you, the state of the moving image is dismal, with only three or four television stations offering a barrage of old and hopelessly dated propaganda films, news, and yet more leadership-glorifying propaganda (although the choices are improving somewhat in the Kim Jong Un era, with, for example, a selection of soap operas and travel shows promoting domestic tourism). But they cannot access anything other than North Korean content, with which everyone in North Korea is already familiar and bored.
Yes, it’s illegal, but now everyone does it, and every idiot knows. The big collective secret of the era: foreign media. This is why all the cinemas in the country are virtually barren now: people would rather watch what’s on the USB sticks, SD cards, and now less often, DVDs they acquire through black-market trade. Even the famous Taedongmun cinema in central Pyongyang, right on Sungni Street, has restored to showing a Bollywood film this month. There was a time when fights would break out in the lines of people struggling to get into a cinema when the latest flick was showing—people were desperate for entertainment, and films, though filled with clunky propaganda, were at least a diversion. Clearly, there’s no audience for the locally produced flicks any longer. The only time you watch one of those is when you’re forced.
So, such devices serve more as fetish objects in the unofficial class system that has been emerging sharply since the famine years of the 1990s than as tools that grant their users special access to the outside world.
Among North Korean watchers, an oft-repeated phrase is that the residents of Pyongyang don’t live like others in the country. That Pyongyang is the “showcase capital,” its residents belonging uniformly to the privileged class, while everyone living elsewhere, presumably, is condemned to a life defined by ceaseless toil and want. This, like so many other facts asserted about North Korea, is only partly true. Every major city in North Korea has rich folk, and all of them have a plugged-in (albeit in the limited way I have described) middle-class. While Pyongyang may be home to the majority of the wealthy in North Korea, it is certainly not home to all of them. Pyongyang may not even have the best access to the latest digital technologies; that honor, along with quite a lot of the country’s hidden wealth, lies along the border with China, where goods are more readily smuggled in. And, unlike the border dwellers who frequently interact with Chinese merchants and may themselves often travel to China, what average Pyongyang citizens don’t have the best access to is information from beyond North Korea. In the underground information economy, news from the outside world tends to leak in through the border regions, reaching Pyongyang days or even weeks later, if at all.
Those living in the border regions have stronger connectivity in another sense: standing on the right hill, they can often pick up signals from Chinese mobile towers that enable them to call abroad. According to North Korean defector-turned-journalist Kang Mi Jin, in recent years a number of enterprising merchants in the Sino-Korean border region have commenced renting out Chinese mobile phones to locals. For many, their purpose is to do business with Chinese merchants across the border, and also to contact family members who have defected to South Korea. Of course the authorities are wise to this and use technological means to perform frequent crackdowns, which can result in severe punishment for those who are caught. Yet it is also well-known that one can generally evade punishment by paying a bribe.
When she was sixteen, for reasons she still can’t fathom, one of Un Ju’s closest friends ratted on her. The bowibu did a search, found a couple of South Korean K-pop CDs. She was sent to prison. She was beaten by the guards on a nightly basis. For no reason—all unprovoked. The beatings were savage and severe; she permanently lost her sense of smell. Still, she managed to avoid the fate of one of her cellmates, who was taken away by the guards each night and raped. This girl, Un Ju told me, became like a zombie. During the day, she would stare straight ahead, unmoving or else rocking herself, unblinking, never uttering a word.
These devices no doubt enhance the grand project of state surveillance, much like in neighboring China—or indeed, in the United States, if Edward Snowden’s revelations are anything to go by. But, in the case of smart TVs, laptops, and tablets—anything with a USB outlet—there is also the possibility of consuming illegal foreign media, which these days is trafficked on the North Korean black market in the form of flash drives.
Ultimately, it is the codification of these devices as status symbols, as an advertisement of privilege—itself taboo in a country that so fanatically proclaims itself socialist—that is most interesting. Among young people—teenagers and university students in particular, those who tend to be most likely to consume this kind of illicit media on the sly—this transgressive inference comes loaded in the local semiotics of the devices, revealing one stratum of the hidden poetics of North Korean semiocapitalism. Having, owning these devices, becomes a sign not only of wealth, but of potential access to the other side of the peninsula, and in a larger sense, to an outside world that is forbidden, and hence, highly desirable.
1Mobile phones were first introduced in North Korea in November 2002. By the following year, around 20,000 North Koreans had acquired cell phones. In sync with the “two steps forward, three steps back” approach typically favored by the regime—the very unpredictability of which serves to keep citizens in a constant state of uncertainty and mild panic when it comes to efforts towards what elsewhere might be deemed “progress”—the country then reversed its decision and banned the use of mobile phones from 2004 to 2008. Then, in late 2008, a new mobile phone carrier, Koryolink, was launched in Pyongyang. A joint venture with the Egyptian firm Orascom, it has proved immensely popular, with reportedly 69 percent of all households in North Korea owning at least one mobile phone as of 2017.
Travis Jeppesen is the author of numerous books, including Victims, Wolf at the Door, All Fall: Two Novellas, The Suiciders, See You Again in Pyongyang, and Bad Writing. In addition, he is known as the creator of object-oriented writing, a metaphysical form of writing-as-embodiment that attempts to channel the inner lives of objects. Jeppesen’s first major object-oriented writing project, 16 Sculptures, was published in book format by Publication Studio, featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial as an audio installation, and was the subject of a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers Grant from Creative Capital / the Warhol Foundation. His calligraphic and text-based art work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Wilkinson Gallery (London), Exile (Berlin), and Rupert (Vilnius). Jeppesen lives in Shanghai, where he teaches at the Institute for Cultural and Creative Industry at Shanghai Jiaotong University.