A 38 North Product Review by Ruediger Frank
A few months ago the ever-growing community of those interested in the DPRK learned that there is now something like a local version of the iPad—the Samjiyon tablet computer (p’anhyŏng k’omp’yut’ŏ samjiyŏn). After having had a chance to test it briefly during a visit in May 2013, I could not resist buying a Samjiyon in a shop in Pyongyang in September 2013. It cost me 180 Euros. After a few days of intensive use I can say that this is one of the few cases in my career as a consumer when I got more for my money than I had expected.
A necessary disclaimer first: No, this gadget is not available to all North Koreans; just as a Mercedes Benz S-class sedan is out of reach for most Germans. The existence of this tablet does not in any way change the fact that the DPRK is, for many of its people, a country of hard manual labor and simple living conditions. It is a developing country with an economy that has been devastated by decades of socialist inefficiency. Most North Koreans are worried about food and heating, not about electronic gadgets. But, just as there are now more than 2 million mobile phones in North Korea, the Samjiyon tablets exist and highlight one facet of this increasingly diverse society. The name of the device is ideologically correct: Samjiyŏn near Mt. Paektu is the place of a major anti-Japanese battle of 1939 commemorated by a large monument. This reminds us that the tablet is not just another toy of a typical consumer-oriented society. It is a useful and entertaining device for a minority in a totalitarian system with a dominant ideology.