Digital Detox Week in the DPRK

The first thing I do in the morning is to check my phone -- even before my first coffee, the benchmark of my ability to function as a proper human, or at least to pass for one.   

I like to think I am not as dependent on my phone as some, which is textbook denial and whataboutism.  A couple of months back I deleted the Facebook app but now note wearily that it is my most frequently accessed mobile website, rendering the whole exercise pointless.  Were I to see the true figures for the number of times a day I check my phone, the number of hours wasted, I would blush.  Stats don’t lie.  I know the itch, the emptiness, the vague panic when I don’t have it.  I am as addicted as anyone.  

There are few corners of the Western world which remain un-permeated by mobile coverage.  In the brief interludes when it is forced upon us-- driving, sleeping, flying, or using the subway-- obsessive phone-checking bookends and where possible invades upon the activity.  Whatever our misgivings, we seldom give up our connectivity out of choice.

One exception to the all-pervasive coverage norm, as with so many other norms, is North Korea.  



From the moment you board the flight from Beijing, things feel different.  Like any flight, you expect to have to set your phone to airplane mode, but the feeling of going off-grid is tangible.  A final “see you in week!” text and Facebook update as the plane pushes away from the gate, and an air of resignation when the attendant asks you politely to switch off.  Some speculatively check for coverage upon landing at Pyongyang Sunan airport, but as foreign SIM cards can’t connect to the local network, there isn’t much point.

Some context-  I visit North Korea a few times a year with a charity called Choson Exchange to run seminars for North Korean entrepreneurs.  We take volunteers with business experience into the country for a week at a time to lecture on their topic of expertise.  A normal distribution of talent and entrepreneurial spirit coupled with a low awareness of normative business practices in other countries means there is a huge gap from where the workshop attendees are to where they could be.  Having no access to the world wide web is a further hindrance to business development.  They recognize this, and there is a real thirst for the experience and knowledge that our volunteers bring.  In November, a speaker from Switzerland who had started his own successful company planned on a few minutes to take questions at the end of his talk; an hour later we had to cut it off, still with many hands raised and plenty of discussion to take through to the coffee break.


I first went to North Korea a decade ago.  In those days foreigners had to leave their phones at the airport, where they were securely wrapped for reclaim on the way out.  Things have changed; we get our phones’ contents checked at customs, but assuming nothing “anti-DPRK” is found we can take them in with us.  Officially, GPS devices are not allowed, but as most modern smartphones have location services enabled they are de facto tolerated.  Using offline maps with audible navigation around Pyongyang entertains our Korean counterparts and drivers, whose phones have no GPS.  Take the next left at the Arch of Triumph, and continue one hundred metres past Kim Il Sung stadium.  Your destination is on the left.

It would be neither fair nor accurate to paint Pyongyang as completely digitally isolated.  Whilst most people have no access to the world wide web, there is a (carefully-curated) countrywide intranet with news, weather, e-commerce sites, and so on.  It is to this that Pyongyangites connect their *Arirang* brand smartphones every day.  There are other differences; most people are on pay-as-you-go plans, and apps must be downloaded manually at approved stores.  Networks in North Korea are localised, with much of Pyongyang served by the transmitter on top of the famous *Ryugyong* hotel, which has towered in various states of incompletion over the city these past twenty years.  And whilst people in the capital are using their phones more than ever before, the saturation point of total addiction that you see in Seoul or Tokyo is some way off.


For visitors like us, the adaptation to life without the drip feed of data adds to the overall experience.  The ‘itch’ fades remarkably quickly, and in its place comes increased concentration, better sleep patterns, and richer conversation; forgotten pleasures like sitting down to immerse oneself in a novel without losing the thread to impulsively check social media.  Oh, and who knew that an iPhone battery could last nearly a week between charges?  There are drawbacks, of course -- you can’t just google something you don’t know on the spot, and telephone calls home, whilst possible, must be made from a landline and are eye-wateringly expensive.  But after a few days, the phone feels less relevant and umbilical, and sometimes I find myself forgetting about it altogether and leaving it in the hotel room.

All things must pass, and when we land at Beijing, a silence descends as everyone logs on.  For me, it is always something of a letdown; there might be hundreds of emails and WhatsApp messages, but it doesn’t take long to pick the bones out of a week’s information to find what really matters.  As we go our separate ways at the Beijing airport, heads buried in phones, it’s back to life as usual.  And I still haven’t finished that book I started in Pyongyang.

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