North Korea has unveiled its own rival to Apple’s iPad Air - a svelte touchscreen filled with apps, and described by one tourist as “surprisingly impressive”.
There are, of course, a few differences between the 7-inch Samjiyon and Apple’s latest - the main one being that you can’t access the internet.
It’s also only available to a select few - North Korea’s ruling elite. Naturally, though, a few models find their way onto the black market - and offer a peek into live inside the secretive dictatorship.
Jeremy Blum of the South China Morning Post says, “It is not difficult to find one in electronics stores if you are looking in the right places - North Korea Tech, which we got the images of the device from, has reviews from tourists.”
Oddly, tourists seem to be able to freely take the machine out of the country - one of North Korea Tech’s customers said he declared it on an official form.
[When will the dead outnumber the living on Facebook?]
The machine can’t access “normal” websites, but can access the country’s intranet, offering official news, TV, and educational apps such as “Grand People’s Study House”.
The tablet costs a mere £155, and - refreshingly - has few adverts, and comes with many pre-loaded apps, including 141 ebooks about North Korea.
It claims to have a 1.2GHz processor - faster than some Western budget tablets - and reviewers praise its speed and responsiveness.
“I would say that the tablet is quite similar to a Western machine aside from the fact that it can't access the internet,” says Blum. “ The general architecture is the same, and it appears to be running a modified version of Android, so there are obvious similarities there.”
““I can honestly say that the Samjiyon is surprisingly impressive,” says one of North Korea Tech’s customers. “In terms of responsiveness and speed, it can almost compete against the leading tablets out there. Tapping and launching apps feels fairly fluid, instantiating the camera is as fast as the world’s leading tablets, and there is no noticeable lag when playing games I’m familiar with, like Angry Birds.”
There are no Google apps on the tablet - instead, a carefully hand-picked selection including Fishing Joy, Educational Books, and, inevitably, Angry Birds.
“This gadget is not available to all North Koreans; just as a Mercedes Benz S-class sedan is out of reach for most Germans,” says University of Vienna Professor Dr Ruediger Frank.
“The existence of this tablet does not in any way change the fact that the country is, for many of its people, a country of hard manual labour and simple living conditions. It is a useful and entertaining device for a minority in a totalitarian system with a dominant ideology.”
Given the relationship between the two countries, it’s unlikely to be used to watch South Korean star Psy’s Gangnam Style.
Within North Korea, the country’s elite are keen computer users, with Chinese-made tablet PCs and a dedicated North Korean operating system, Red Star, used in place of Windows or Mac OS.
Blum says that the product is very “niche” and restricted to the friends of the regime - and “probably pretty useless” for anyone outside Korea.
North Korea cut off mobile internet access for visitors to the country, part of the cloak of secrecy that surrounds the state.
North Korean defector Kim Heung-Kwang claims that the country’s top science universities train “cyber warriors” to attack Western targets - and that hackers also receive “tuition” from rogue groups in Russia and China.
Blum says, “I'd say that the localized apps and e-books that the device has are great for a Korean reader interested in knowing more about North Korea, but probably pretty useless to someone who has no knowledge of the language.”