JEAN H. LEE
"Hello world from comms center in (hash)Pyongyang."
That Twitter missive, sent Monday from Koryolink's main service center in downtown Pyongyang using my iPhone, marked a milestone for North Korea: It was believed to be the first tweet sent from a cellphone using the country's new 3G mobile data service.
Later, as we were driving through Pyongyang, I used my iPhone to snap a photo of a new roadside banner referring to North Korea's controversial Feb. 12 nuclear test while AP's Chief Asia Photographer David Guttenfelder uploaded an image to Instagram of a tour guide at a mountain temple, geotagged to Pyongyang.
Pretty ordinary stuff in the world of social media, but revolutionary for North Korea, a country with intricate rules to stage manage the flow of images and information both inside and beyond its borders.
In the past, rules were strict for tourists visiting North Korea. On a bus journey across the Demilitarized Zone into the border city of Kaesong in 2008, we were told: No cellphones, no long camera lenses, no shooting photos without permission. The curtains were drawn to prevent us from looking outside as we drove through the countryside, and through the cracks we could see soldiers stationed along the road with red flags. We were warned they'd raise those flags and stop the bus for inspection if they spotted a camera pointed out the window. As we left North Korea, immigration officials went through our cameras, clicking through the photos to make sure we weren't taking home any images that were objectionable.
In 2009, I did not offer up my iPhone as we went through customs. But to no avail. The eagle-eyed officer dug deep into the pocket where I'd tucked the phone away, wagged his finger and slipped the phone into a little black bag. No phone, no address book, no music: It was as though I'd left the modern world behind at Sunan airport and stepped back in time to a seemingly prehistoric analog era.
Eventually, Guttenfelder and I settled into a working routine. We'd leave our cellphones at the airport but use locally purchased phones with SIM cards provided by Koryolink, the joint Egyptian-North Korean cellphone venture that established a 3G network in 2008, but without data. We brought iPod Touches and connected to the world, including Twitter, using broadband Internet that may be installed on request at our hotel, which is for international visitors.
We knew in January that change was afoot. "Bring your own phone next time," a Koryolink saleswoman told me at the airport as we were departing. The next day, the longstanding rule of requiring visitors to relinquish their phones was gone.
But we were waiting for the day when Koryolink would begin offering mobile Internet, and hounded the Egyptians posted to North Korea from Orascom Telecom Media and Technology for news.
"Soon," they kept telling us.
Last week, they called with good news: 3G mobile Internet would be available within a week -- only for foreigners.
All we had to do when we arrived in February was show our passports, fill out a registration form, provide our phones' IMEI numbers and pop in our Koryolink SIM cards. It's a costly luxury: SIM cards are 50 euros, or about $70, and while calls to Switzerland are an inexplicably cheap 38 euro cents a minute, calls to the U.S. cost about $8 a minute.
After reporting last week on the imminent availability of 3G mobile Internet, we turned up at the Koryolink offices Monday to be among the first ones to activate the service.
After paying a steep 75-euro fee and sending a text to activate the service, we waited for the 3G symbol to pop up on our phones.
Moments later, I sent the inaugural tweet, which was queued up and ready to go. There was a little celebration that morning in the Koryolink office among the Egyptians who labored to set up the service and their North Korean partners.
Our North Korean colleagues watched with surprise as we showed them we could surf the Internet from our phones.
Koreans, North and South, love gadgets.
Not all North Koreans have local cellphones. Those who do use them to call colleagues to arrange work meetings, phone and text friends to set up dinner dates and ring home to check in on their babies. They snap photos with their phones and swap MP3s. They read North Korean books and the Workers' Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on their phones.