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North Korea did not release a new smartphone last year

A member of a church in the central Seoul ward of Jongno uses a one-time quick response (QR) code to enter the venue on June 2, 2020. (Yonhap). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

PYONGYANG, Feb 1, 2021, Daily NK. North Korea released no new smartphone models last year, despite having released two to three new models each year in the past. According to a source, the country faced difficulties releasing new models due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Daily NK reported.

In a phone call with Daily NK on Thursday, a source in North Korea said no new smartphones were released last year. “This is because the economic situation wasn’t good due to the coronavirus,” he said.

North Korea released the Pyongyang (five models), Jindallae (four models), Chollyong (two models) and Phurun Hanul (three models) series of smartphones and the Kildongmu (one model) smartphone between 2017 and 2019. However, despite having released a range of models in previous years, from high performance smartphones to entry models, the country debuted no new models last year.

While North Korean propaganda media unveiled the Chollyong 201 and 202 and Jindallae 6 and 7 early last year, they actually went to market in late 2019. In the case of the Pyongyang 2425, North Korea unveiled the development of the phone in state media a full six months after it was released. In a photo of a Chollyong 201 obtained by Daily NK, the date of manufacture is marked as late 2019. There is apparently a gap between when the phones go to market and when they are unveiled in the media.

“That you couldn’t bring in needed parts with the border being closed due to the virus also had an impact,” said the source. “Now is not a time for making new mobile phones.”

North Korea claims in its propaganda that it independently develops smartphones, but if you check the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of North Korean devices, all show foreign manufacturers. Because of this, there is speculation that North Korea simply installs software on completed phones by other manufacturers or locally reassembled phones made from key imported parts.

Basically, if North Korea cannot import the parts needed to manufacture smartphones, it cannot make existing models, let alone new ones.

Relatedly, North Korea all but suspended trade from last year when it closed the border as part of quarantine efforts against COVID-19. According to China’s General Administration of Customs, official Sino-North Korean trade in 2020 fell around 80% from the previous year.

With trade coming to a halt, it is very likely North Korea could not import the key components it needs to manufacture smartphones.

Despite UN Security Council sanctions (UNSC Resolution 2397) banning North Korea from importing or exporting electrical equipment, the country had been manufacturing smartphones by importing parts on the sly. However, COVID-19 seems to have brought an end to this. With this, we can surmise that the coronavirus is having a stronger impact on North Korea’s economy than international sanctions.

Meanwhile, North Korea had proudly been showing off new products at its annual National Exhibition of IT Successes. It has long been possible to confirm the release of new smartphone models at the events in years past. However, North Korea released no news about the National Exhibition of IT Successes last year. It is possible they did not convene the expo due to COVID-19.

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