Some North Koreans find cash by chasing computer bugs

(From Radio Free Asia)

As North Koreans manage to purchase more electronic gadgets, a gray market computer repair squad is growing inside the secretive country as engineering school graduates and people who are just handy are finding a new income by making the devices work.

“Most urban North Korean families today have a computer in their houses, and university students also usually have their own laptop and a tablet or PC, so engineers who can fix these electronic devices are becoming popular,” a North Korean living in North Pyongan province near the Chinese border told RFA’s Korean Service.

While the engineers are usually registered to work at national organizations like the post office, they are finding the repair business to be a lucrative sideline, the source told RFA.

“They usually take 100 to 200 [Chinese] yuan each time, about $15 to $30 dollars, by helping people install new computers or fix old ones to operate faster,” the source said.

In this official Korean Central News Agency photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) is shown inspecting a new Arirang touch-screen mobile phone in the factory where it is made, May 11, 2013.

In this official Korean Central News Agency photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) is shown inspecting a new Arirang touch-screen mobile phone in the factory where it is made, May 11, 2013.

That might not seem like much to people outside North Korea, but it is a huge amount of money, equivalent to about 130,000 North Korean won, in a country where cash is hard to come by.

The money is attracting more than just engineering school graduates, as people who are interested in electronics and learn more about the techniques required to operate the gadgets are also getting into the game, the source added.

People who used to fix radios and TVs are also cashing in as the numbers of users with the new devices grow, the source said.

It’s unclear how the Kim Jung Un regime is reacting to the growing repair business, as the sales of electronic equipment are severely restricted, but Pyongyang’s own policy unintentionally gives these businesses operating in the shadows a boost.

Since North Korea allows only the use of its own operating system called  “Red Star,” computers imported from another country must have Red Star installed in order to operate in North Korea. That helps keep the repair business hopping, said a recent defector to the U.S.

And though the government attempts to keep a close reign on electronics and enforces strict censorship, the repairmen are becoming exposed to the outside world, the defector told RFA.

“When I had conversations with these engineers recently, I realized that they were fairly aware of information about the world, and particularly talked a lot about South Korea positively,” the defector from South Pyongan province said. “They appear to have escaped from North Korea’s isolated way of thinking.”

While the North Korean authorities may be willing to look the other way as engineers and handymen make a few bucks fixing cell phones on the side or installing Red Star on a PC, there are others who are taking it a step further.

“One engineer who graduated from the Electronic Engineering School at Kim Chaek University of Technology is working to help capture South Korean signals on North Korean televisions and is selling converted radios with South Korean channels in a local market,” the defector said.

Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service.  Translated by Dohyun Gwon.  Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

Copyright Radio Free Asia



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