Believe it or not, North Korea has its own domestically produced smartphone brands. In Pyongyang, their usage and appearance is increasingly common. Like any modern city on earth, you will observe young people repeatedly into their phones, texting and even playing games. Today, we’re going to look at one particular brand popular amongst locals, that is: The Arirang Smartphone. Let’s explore what this brand is, its political legacy, the versions of the phone it produced and just what kind of impact its having on everyday life in the DPRK!
First of all, what do we mean by an Arirang Smartphone? What is Arirang? Rather than being just a cool brand name: Arirang is in fact the name of a traditional folksong in Korea that has come to embody and symbolize the country itself! The song entails the story of two lovers who become separated by a growing flow of water and mourn their loss. As you can imagination, the tale has found new meaning in the events of the division of Korea. North Korea place their own emphasis on the story, stating that the two lovers were instead parted the influence of a cruel landlord (the United States). This is utilized for the annual Arirang festival, otherwise known as “The Mass Games” which recounts the story and legacy of North Korea through gymnastic performances.
But enough of that, what about Arirang smartphones? The brand itself first emerged around 2013 with a personal endorsement from leader Kim Jong un, who believed the production of smartphones would install “national pride and self-respect into the Korean people”. However, in practice the technology was allegedly attained from copying a Chinese brand known as “Uniscope”. Still, the original Arirang phone itself had some noteworthy features: which included a 4.3-inch display, dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chip running at 1.2GHz, a 8-MPX camera, a “3D stereo sound chamber design,” and a 1,900mAh battery. Not of course world class, but certainly outstanding for what you would expect of the DPRK. In terms of operating systems, it uses what is described as a “slightly modified version of Android 7.1.1”. It also has wifi and 3G internet data capabilities, but you probably thought they didn’t need that!
However, by 2016, North Korea had released a new version of the Arirang Smartphone, titled the “Arirang 171”. According to specialist website North Korea tech this version has a 10 core processor, has a 32GB memory, 4GM RAM and a 13 megapixel camera! Again, impressive for the DPRK’s own conditions! But just what kind of impact are these phones having on North Korean lives? Obviously in practice, the internet usage they have on offer is limited, restricted for locals to the DPRK’s own intranet system and thus offering little for the outside world. Still, they are overseeing a domestic revolution in communication and lifestyle. On our experiences in North Korea we have witnessed locals sitting playing games such as texas hold’em poker or candy crush on their phones. Whilst this might not sound for us, these new experiences have powerful influences on they view the world and life in general. It is far acry from the country’s initial political orthodoxy.
Thus as a whole, the Arirang smartphone is just another signal of shifting trends towards consumerism in North Korea. Endorsed by the leader himself, who has been far more open to experimenting with small economic reforms and incremental shifts, it is strong example of how modernity is creeping into the DPRK, even if it is only within its capital. It is far of course from the political revolution many hope to see, yet it is reminder that the lives of North Koreans are only likely to move slightly closer to ours, even if they never quite be the same!