Not So Smooth Operators

B-ring B-ring! "Pyongyang imnida!"

"Extension five five five five* please"

"Wait a minute"

... (a minute duly waited)


"Hello - is Mr. Choe there please?"

"Hold on a minute please"

Footsteps. Door creaking open. Silence. Conversation in distance. More footsteps. Silence. Footsteps. (this is often two to three minutes)

"Hello, this is Mr. Choe**"

"Mr. Choe, lovely to speak to you! I'm just calling to confirm yadda yadda blah blah"

"Yes, that will be fine. No problem."

"OK, bye bye"

At well over a dollar a minute, a usual phone call to Pyongyang for us consists of four minutes of waiting and two minutes of talking. Calling Pyongyang is not the simple task it is most places. Annoyingly often, after a few minutes of searching, Mr. Choe turns out to be out of the office. Or no one picks up and you're kicked back to the operator. The very idea of calling a city switchboard is something that my generation has only seen in black and white films.

Phones were in the news again last week, as visiting foreigners look set to have mobile internet access soon. We've seen resident foreigners checking email on phones before. And while this is welcome news for people addicted to twitter (I'm lookin' at you, Adam Cathcart!), it remains quarantined from those Koreans tasked with dealing with foreigners. Tour guides will likely have to endure more facebook pictures of bachelor parties and babies and whatnot.

Life and business communications move lightening fast in the 21st century. So now real-time uploads of Kim Il Sung Square to Instagram (OMG! CAN'T BELIEVE I'M HERE RIGHT NOW LOL!) will join the flow, dealing with actual Pyongyangers from abroad remains grindingly slow.

If the DPRK really wants to increase investment and trade, it will have to make communications more fluid for the class of people who already have permission to deal with foreign organizations. This is a narrow class indeed, but is one that could accomplish much more if they could move at a less languid pace .

*of course not really.

**also probably not really.