North Korea allows foreign visitors to use own mobiles

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North Koreans take photos on mobile phones at New Year in Pyongyang (1 Jan 2013)
Image caption,
North Koreans who have mobiles phones are limited in what they can use them for

Foreign visitors to North Korea are for the first time being allowed to take their own mobile phones with them into the country, according to reports.

Previously, all foreigners had to leave their mobiles at the border and collect them when they left.

Visitors can now buy a SIM card at the airport, which will let them make international calls. But they cannot make local calls or go online.

Most North Koreans have limited or no access to the internet.

China's state news agency, Xinhua, said the changes had been in place since 7 January this year.

A report of phones being allowed in came from a China-based tour group, Young Pioneer Tours.

A spokesman said they had been preparing to hand over their mobiles as they entered North Korea, but a border guard simply asked whether the devices were equipped with GPS and then indicated they should carry them through regardless of the answer.

"He just motioned for us to put them in our bags. Zero explanation," said the company's managing director, Gareth Johnson.

Mr Johnson said his North Korean counterparts later confirmed that this was "a new policy".

An Associated Press report out of Pyongyang said the SIM cards would also allow foreigners to contact foreign embassies in Pyongyang and international hotels.

Schmidt visit

North Korea's mobile network is run by a joint state-owned and Egyptian company, Koryolink.

An Egyptian employee of Koryolink told Xinhua the new policy was a result of talks between the company and North Korean officials.

He said internet services would soon be made available to foreign visitors, adding that there was no technical issue preventing this.

But he dismissed speculation that it was connected to the recent visit to North Korea by the head of Google, Eric Schmidt.

Mr Schmidt visited North Korea in early January, though after the new policy is reported to have come into effect.

He urged North Korea to end its self-imposed isolation and allow its citizens to use the internet.

It is believed that only the elite in the country have access to the internet - few people have access to a computer and those that do can usually only access a domestic web service and not the internet.