Foreigners visiting North Korea crowd a new booth at the Pyongyang airport… (Associated Press )
If you ever wanted to get completely away from talking on your cellphone, the place to go was North Korea.
"It was like there was an invisible wall surrounding the country," said Gareth Johnson, managing director of Young Pioneer Tours, which has been taking tour groups to North Korea since 2008.
"You crossed the border into North Korea and your cellphone just died -- you got absolutely no signal," said Johnson, speaking from the tour company's office in Xian, China.
But the fanatically strict North Korean policy against cellphone use by outsiders has begun to crack. Earlier this month, Johnson and others were told that tourists would be allowed to bring their smartphones, though calls would be highly restricted.
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The only service they could use is the state-run Koryolink, and the only calls allowed -- with rare exception -- are to phones outside the nation.
"It's part of a general opening up of tourism, but it's going very slow," Johnson said.
The former policy was so strict that just a few weeks ago, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt left his cellphone in Beijing when he traveled to North Korea.
Before the new cellphone thaw, if a tourist was carrying a phone when entering the country, it would be taken at the airport and then returned when the person was leaving, Johnson said.
If the outsider came in by train, the phone would be sealed in an envelope at the border that was not to be opened while in the nation.
But on Jan. 15, when Johnson was coming in by train with a small group of tourists including two Americans, he was surprised when a guard said they could hold on to their phones.
He later asked North Korean guides about it because he didn't want to get them in trouble. "They said, 'New policy, don't worry,'" Johnson said.
His group found that they could pick up cell signals from Koryolink on the phones, but still couldn't make or receive calls. That's since been rectified -- Johnson said that at airports and other venues, Koryolink SIM cards for cellphones can now be purchased for 50 Euros (about $66).
The SIM card makes the phone operational, but there's also a charge, per minute, for calls. "It can be very expensive," he said.
You can't call ordinary citizens or businesses in North Korea, however. The SIM cards hook up only to Koryolink's international cell service, so only calls to foreign countries -- or the small number of international phones inside the country -- can be made.
"I know a guy in an embassy in Pyongyang [the capital city] who has one, but they're rare."
The new phone policy is part of several recent moves by the North Korean government to boost tourism. Increases in flights and train trips from outside the country have also been authorized.
But it's perhaps more an economic move than a thawing of relations with the outside world.
"Every tourist who comes in brings money," Johnson said, "in hard currency."