Apple’s iPad Air may be the newest gadget making international headlines, but in North Korea, a different sort of tablet has emerged – a decidedly niche product, but one that may be better than the iPad in certain ways.
The Samjiyon, a tablet launched in the last year by state-run Korea Computer Centre (KCC), is the most well-known device to recently emerge from North Korea’s budding computer industry.
Costing roughly HK$ 1920, the Samjiyon runs on a modified version of Google’s Android operating system, and contains electronic components that were possibly assembled in North Korea but may originally have been produced in China by Shenzhen-based Yecon Industry Company, reported North Korea Tech.
The Samjiyon comes with a wealth of ad-free content pre-loaded onto the device, which makes it in some ways superior to a typical out-of-the-box iPad, which must be filled with apps purchased from the Apple Store.
The device contains 141 e-books on topics related to North Korea, features a stunning 448 pre-installed dictionaries and even comes with localised versions of popular mobile games – including Angry Birds Rio.
According to an in-depth review published by 38 North, the Samjiyon’s impressive amount of pre-loaded content indicates that the tablet is meant to be an all-in-one computer rather than a constantly updating mobile device. It cannot access the internet, although tourists who have purchased the tablet have noted that it includes an option to access Kwangmyong, North Korea’s domestic and heavily censored public intranet.
“The tablet has obviously been made for people who mainly use it offline,” University of Vienna professor Ruediger Frank wrote for 38 North. “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 [North Korea] is, for many of its people, a country of hard manual labour and simple living conditions… [The Samjiyon] is a useful and entertaining device for a minority in a totalitarian system with a dominant ideology.”
Frank noted that the tablet’s dictionaries and e-books, filled with a wealth of information on North Korean ideology, history and “the Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary activities” would be valuable for experts and historians studying the reclusive country.
“It does not take much imagination to see all the future PhD theses written about the North Korean educational system based just on the textbooks available on a single Samjiyon,” Frank wrote. “For those interested in the technical skills of North Korean programmers, the Samjiyon will [also] offer a number of insights.”
Ultimately, however, the Samjiyon remains a niche product in both its home country and abroad. A representative of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based agency that organised tours for over 6,000 foreign visitors to North Korean in 2012, explained to the Post that even among curious tourists, interest in North Korean technological products was low.
“We have heard of the tablets and we have taken some tour groups to small electronics manufacturing plants,” the representative said. “But people are generally more interested in seeing historical monuments... Even in souvenir shops, most tourists would rather purchase works of art than computers.”
“The Samjiyon is a good novelty item for people interested in North Korea,” agreed Casey Choi, a Korean journalist working in Hong Kong. “But I do like how they put Angry Birds Rio in there.”