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World & Nation

You can buy Cognac at North Korea’s airport, but a SIM card? Not so much

The runway at the Pyongyang airport in North Korea

The runway at the Pyongyang airport in North Korea.

(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

How many North Koreans does it take to sell a SIM card?

It sounds like a bad joke, but the answer Tuesday afternoon at the Pyongyang airport seemed to be four, or maybe five.

A dozen or so foreign journalists were queued at a window marked “Currency,” having landed on a flight from Beijing about 3:30 p.m. Kim Jong Un’s government has invited 130 overseas reporters to the North Korean capital this week for the biggest political gathering the country has seen in 36 years: a Korean Workers’ Party Congress.

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Since my last visit in 2008 — when I traveled to North Korea as a tourist — the capital appears to be better off financially, with much more capitalist-style amenities than before. Traffic is much heavier, though any L.A. driver would still describe the roads as blissfully empty. Taxis ply the streets. Dozens of snack stands line main streets in the city center.

And the new Pyongyang airport, opened by Kim last summer with great fanfare, offers services previously unavailable to air passengers arriving in the city.

Sanctions notwithstanding, there’s not one but two duty-free shops, offering a fairly wide selection of Cognacs, whiskeys and vodka — including brand names like Courvoisier, Chivas Regal and Hennessy (a liter of VSOP was going for about $140 at the official exchange rate). Smokers can select from cartons of Swiss-made Chesterfields and other brands, including Marlboros and Phillip Morris.

The duty free shop at the international airport in Pyongyong, North Korea
The duty free shop at the international airport in Pyongyong, North Korea (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

Fortunately, the duty-free shops are located before passengers clear customs, where the intensive screening process might drive one to toss back a shot or three.

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It took dozens of customs workers in blue-and-brown military-style uniforms more than two hours to process the 40 or so foreign reporters who arrived from Beijing carrying all manner of electronic devices —equipment that Kim’s government still deems an existential threat.

Portable Wi-Fi routers, GPS devices and satellite phones are a definite no-no; they had to be handed over to authorities, with a promise that they’d be returned when we depart the country. Cellphones were inventoried, along with laptops, cameras, external hard drives, English-to-Korean tourist phrase books, iPads, Kindles and portable battery banks.

I typically carry two portable battery chargers, including one whimsical one in the shape of a blue-and-yellow Minion from the Universal Pictures cartoon films. The item stumped the inspectors.

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“What is this?” a tall, burly supervisor asked me, trying to screw off the Minion’s lone protruding eyeball — which is not removable. I had to plug my phone into the battery to demonstrate to him that it was not something capable of bringing down a government — though Gru, the supervillain of “Despicable Me,” might beg to disagree.

After clearing my Minion, the agents demanded to look at my Kindle. They apparently were not happy with some of my recent downloads, including “2012 Complete Guide to North Korea” published by the CIA.

One male agent expertly navigated through the pages, swiping through the history and statistics sections, while a female agent translated some lines for him. After about five minutes, he declared that I had “illegal materials” on the device and would have to deposit the item with him until I returned to the airport for my departing flight.

Although I was impressed to some degree with the agents’ familiarity with foreign electronic gadgetry, the concept of “the cloud” may still be a bit murky in North Korea. It seemingly did not occur to my inquisitors that once I arrived at the hotel media center and could connect to the Internet, I could easily and merrily re-download my forbidden 600-page CIA tome to my laptop from Amazon’s website if I so chose. Or maybe they just wanted to make a point.

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And so I quickly agreed and moved on to the next task: procuring a SIM card to have some connection to the outside world over the next 10 daysas our minders schlep us around the capital by bus, working double time to keep our eyes focused on what they want us to see. Apparently North Koreans haven’t figured out what all parents know: that if we’re all glued to our devices, we won’t have much time to look out the window, let alone complain or ask pesky questions like, why isn’t that giant, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong hotel in downtown Pyongyang complete yet, nearly three decades after construction began?

Many North Koreans have cellphones these days, but they are intended to work only within North Korea and don’t connect to the global Internet. A limited — apparently very limited — number of SIM cards that connect to the real Internet are available for foreigners willing to part with substantial sums: $200 for a card and then $200 for a few hundred megabytes of data.

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Off I went to be gouged for a SIM card. About 10 journalists were already ahead of me. Five minutes turned into 10, then 15, then 20. We amused ourselves by discussing the apparently brand-new, but out-of-service, Ryugong Commercial Bank ATM — such machines are still a rare sight anywhere in the country. I looked over the offerings at the two snack stands, the coffee shop and the closed gift shop.

We took note of a small notice posted behind the currency clerk’s window: “All the users of the DPRK Internet system cannot access to the anti-republic false propaganda websites. Sex and Adult websites.For example, access to South Korean Websites including South Korean Newspaper websites ... such as ‘chosun.com,’ ‘donga.com,’ ‘kbs.co.kr,’ and anti-republic false propaganda websites such as ‘rfa.org,’ ‘voanews.com,’ Adult websites, Gambling websites and websites being used for distribution of malwares is blocked.

“In addition, access to Social Network Service such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter is blocked for a certain period of time.”

A sign at the airport in Pyongyong, North Korea
A sign at the airport in Pyongyong, North Korea (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

Surely North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was educated in Switzerland, knows that most of the foreign media here to chronicle his big coming-out party plan to cover the event in large measure via such networks. But hey, Kim’s got some face to maintain, so what’s a little firewall-leaping VPN software between friends?

The SIM card line wasn’t budging. Two women and two men huddled behind the counter, staring at phones and paperwork. One of the women occasionally spoke into a Bluetooth headset on her right ear. A fifth man walked back and forth from the clerk’s room to a side office.

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As the clock ticked past 6:20 p.m., a Bloomberg correspondent near the window said, “They’re down to the last one!” At first, I thought it was a typical reporter’s prank. “Good one!” I said. But it was true: sold out. Perhaps 20 people had gotten cards, if that.

The SIM card counter, Pyongyong airport, North Korea
The SIM card counter, Pyongyong airport, North Korea (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

From counterfeiting to narcotics-making and coal-mining, North Korea works hard for its foreign cash. So I was a bit surprised that given such an easy opportunity to earn scarce greenbacks, Euros and Chinese renminbi, the North Korean machine had fallen down on the job. After all, Kim has been inviting foreign journalists to North Korea with some regularity, including scores for October’s massive military parade, and other events like missile tests or when he wants to parade a foreign detainee in front of TV cameras.

“I’m a bit surprised,” I said to my government-assigned minder-interpreter. “Officials clearly knew how many of us were coming and surely expected all of us would want SIM cards.”

It is likely to be one of the many slightly awkward exchanges we have over the course of the week: I will ask about something that doesn’t quite add up, and she — armed with no real information — will do her best to try to say something that sounds like an explanation but isn’t.

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“Maybe they knew how many passengers, but not how many foreigners or foreign journalists,” she said, though somehow they dispatched precisely the right number of minders and buses.

“Maybe you can buy one tomorrow at the hotel,” she said. “Let’s go to the bus.”

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from Asia

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