First published at NK News on the 1st of February, 2019.
By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
From video games to language learning, Pyongyangites increasingly have plenty of choices
Life as a foreign student in Pyongyang brings with it many unique perks and privileges. Like resident diplomatic staff and NGO workers, we can walk and cycle freely (with no need for a translator or guide to accompany us) around Pyongyang.
We can spend our money in a wide selection of stores and restaurants that tourists and short-term guests are barred from even stepping foot inside. We are the only foreign residents who can ride the subway and use taxis to get about town by ourselves (diplomatic staff and NGO workers would require their Korean staff to be with them).
Another area in which foreign long-term residents (both foreign students and other types of foreign long-term residents) enjoy a unique level of access is software and digital devices.
If a short-term visitor wanted to buy a North Korean tablet computer, for example, they would only be permitted to buy one that has basically all local software taken off. This wasn’t the case when they first emerged around 2013, but since has become a policy.
But we foreign long-term residents can purchase any of the North Korean tablet computers (and there are many brands now) as normal, with the full gamut of programs that they generally come stocked with, from dictionaries (and this can be very helpful for our Korean language studies), the DPRK’s equivalent to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and some simple games.
Enter the North Korean app store
We are also uniquely able to use the local “app store” to get new apps and updates to our devices.
A point of clarification is perhaps necessary. North Korea’s domestic intranet is becoming more and more developed, and as of just last year, Wi-Fi zones in downtown Pyongyang and the devices that can use them to access the intranet — Wi-Fi enabled tablets and smartphones– have made their first appearance.
Cellular data is also commonly available for smartphones, which I’ve noticed to be within the means of ordinary Pyongyang residents such as taxi drivers and waitresses. I was told that presently cellular data is on the slow and expensive side, but that speeds would increase from 10 megabytes per second to 100 megabytes per second soon.
Residents accessing intranet on their smartphones or tablets can use it to augment the functionality of apps they already have: they can use it to read new editions of the Rodong Sinmun in the newspaper’s dedicated app, or stream content (music, videos, ebooks) on “Naui Kiltongmu” (“My Companion”) for example. But as of yet, individual users still cannot go on the intranet to install new apps directly onto their devices.
The app store is presently not an app store in the online sense of Apple’s App Store or Google’s Google Play. The North Korean app store is, rather, a physical place. They usually take the form of a counter attached to a larger shop.
The space is covered with flyers advertising the various apps, which are produced in color, done in high print quality and then laminated, and arranged into a grid stuck to the walls surrounding the counter, and sometimes also placed on the counter itself.
These flyers are interesting as a form of nascent advertising in North Korea. They also make for eye catching spaces, often completely covering entire walls with colorful advertising.
These app stores are already ubiquitous in Pyongyang. Within just five minutes’ walk from the dormitory we know of at least five of them. One for example is inside the electronics section of a supermarket (which also runs its own restaurant upstairs as often is the case) we frequent.
Another is adjacent to a printing service, just across from a drinks counter and a shop underneath one of the best restaurants in our neighborhood (as you’re perhaps already getting a sense, the retail experience in North Korea is very eclectic).
I’ve also seen them in department stores, telecommunications centers (where you can purchase phones and phone plans), photo studios—even the art gallery on Kim Il Sung Square has its own little counter.
Just as much they can be a part of your neighborhood grocery store, they are of course an indispensable part of the “IT exchange centers” (정보기술교류소) scattered all about town, which specialize in electronic goods but often branch out into printing, photography, and other services.
Getting the apps
At first, we tried to see if we could install local apps to our devices brought over from abroad. We noticed that the local system is an Android one, and figured that it should be possible to get local apps onto our own foreign Android devices.
However, we soon found that there was mutual incompatibility. Firstly, local systems were based on a much older version of Android. Secondly, it seemed to be a feature of the way that the system and the apps were coded that local apps could only be installed onto local devices (conversely, foreign apps and even media files cannot be used with local devices).
But after we purchased our own local tablets and smartphones, we were able to use these app stores for ourselves.
Here’s how the app installation process works. You walk in, and tell the person behind the counter which apps you want. You can browse the flyers around the counter to get an idea of any apps you’d like to purchase.
The store should also be able to sell apps beyond what are advertised on the limited space of the countertop and the walls, you can talk to the staff and confirm whether they have the app you want.
The staff have an in-depth knowledge of apps, so you can also simply have a chat with them and describe what kind of apps you want, and they can give you recommendations.
I’ve gone in and asked them to recommend me popular games, and tried to find out if there were any eBook apps that would allow me to access electronic versions of North Korea’s top literary magazine, Choson Munhak, and novels published by the Arts and Literature Publishing House (both of which are important sources for my master’s thesis), or whether they had any selfie apps (the kind that can detect and “beautify” faces in photos).
I obtained some interesting games through this. With eBooks I found that such apps used to exist but that now eBooks are downloaded from the intranet (which as the time of writing we’re still trying to figure out how to access as foreigners), and that the photo beautification app Pomhyanggi (“spring fragrance”) has been discontinued. So it’s been a bit hit and miss, but one thing is clear and that is that there is already a pretty sizable selection of apps available.
Most apps feature both phone and tablet versions, although some may only work for the phone. Apps range in price from about 5,000 to 10,000 won. Upon deciding which apps you want the staff member will write them up onto a docket with prices.
You take that to the cashier, pay, the cashier stamps the docket and you take it back to the staff member (this is how payment in general works in most places in North Korea, a legacy of the Soviet accounting system—thanks to Peter Ward for clarification on this point).
The staff will then plug your device into their computer. They will install the apps onto your device using the .apk files they have in their database. They then get onto the intranet and visit the websites of each of the companies that produce the relevant apps.
There, they buy the activation codes needed for each app, without which the app, even if already installed via the .apk file, will not yet be able to function (I once got caught in a situation where an app was installed but the provider’s website was down so was told to come back later—the app was on my device but not usable until they were able to get onto the site and get the code for me).
At some point in the process, for certain apps with large databases such as dictionary apps, data files will also need to be obtained and installed.
After that you’re all set!
In terms of overall convenience, it does help that these app stores are on every block, but the process can take quite some time. If things are busy, you will first have to wait in line for other customers to get their apps. Then, when it’s your turn, the procedure just described where the staff member installs and authorizes each app can take a while.
One time I went in to get about ten apps, and the whole process took well over an hour. I just had to stand around and wait, but couldn’t help but be struck by the time and labour required on the part of the staff in this method of installing apps, as opposed to an automated online store.
Types of apps
Finally, a quick look at what kinds of apps are available, based on looking at the flyers found at these app stores. (Categories somewhat arbitrary.)
Games. Many of the games on offer appear to be Korean translations or modifications of overseas offerings (a town defense game where the raiders are named “the Japanese brigands” or naval battle and tank games that play North Korean military songs as background music), with a portion of games that appear to be locally made.
I’ve seen everything from Sim City-type city builders to racing games, puzzle games, tower defense games, farming games, sports games, airplane flight simulators, a submarine simulator, virtual pet games, Street Fighter-style martials arts/ fighting games, card games, town defense games, a Guitar Hero-style music game, and another where the objective is to guess the name of the song playing, detective adventure games, board games such as Korean chess, and shooters with everything from tanks, naval battles, infantry, and a Robocop-style android, and more.
Business apps. Examples include electronic notebooks, accounting apps, and an app to assist with writing letters of congratulations.
Educational apps. These seem to be predominately locally made, and after games, might be the next most popular category together with lifestyle apps. Apps for learning English and Chinese seem to be in high demand.
I’ve also seen apps for general knowledge, hanja (Chinese character) memorization, math puzzle apps, a piano simulator, a handwriting practice app, a Korean architecture guide app, an app for learning Sino-Korean four character idioms, and apps to help schoolchildren with their studies.
Lifestyle apps. Also mostly locally made and high in popularity. Cooking, health, and diet-related apps seem to be particularly common. Others include interior design and fashion advice apps, and apps for keeping track of exercise.
Entertainment apps. Apps such as North Korea’s Netflix equivalent, “Naui Kiltongmu” (“My Companion”), and various music (“Meari”) and eBook (“Ryomyong” and “Kwangmyong” apps.
Utility apps. A map app, an app that can test for color blindness, body fat, heart rate and breathing monitor apps, dictionary apps, apps for help with spelling and grammar, a construction worker’s notebook app, and IQ testers.
The apps are produced by various companies, whose logos are displayed prominently in the corner of each flyer.
In the coming weeks I will take a closer look at some of the more interesting apps, so watch this space!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Alek Sigley