North Korea has a new tablet!

Some may immediately scoff but it’s not that bad from the report it seems.

It’s No iPad, But North Korea’s Tablet Isn’t a Joke Either


Rudiger Frank
A screenshot of the Samjiyon’s home screen, showing North Korea’s Unha 3 rocket.

It came with less fanfare than the iPad Air, the fifth-generation iPad tablet that Apple Inc. is releasing to a frenzied market today.

But the Samjiyon SA-70 tablet, released by North Korea’s state-run computer agency earlier this year, could also be an in-demand product, at least for a certain breed of frontier-market tech consumer.

North Korea’s nascent tablet industry first gained widespread attention last year, after Martyn Williams, a journalist who runs the North Korea Tech blog, described tablets that appeared to be showing up at trade fairs.

But those reports of a North Korean tablet only generated more questions: Were they any good? Where did they come from? Which was the best model? And how was the screen resolution?

North Korea may not yet have its Walt Mossberg, but for now, Rüdiger Frank, a professor at the University of Vienna, is happy to step in.

Last week, the Korea expert and frequent visitor to the North, penned a product review of the Samjiyon SA-70 that has garnered considerable attention in North Korea-watching circles.

The review — which, it should be noted, is earnest — reveals a product that isn’t quite up to Apple-like standards, but isn’t a complete embarrassment either. (At 180 euros a pop, the Samjiyon is also a bargain next to the iPad Air, which starts at $499.)

In fact, Mr. Frank, sounding very Mossbergian indeed, kicks off his review by giving the device a hearty thumbs-up: “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.”

From there, Mr. Frank — an owner of an iPad 4 and a GoogleGOOG -0.34% Nexus 7 — spends 16 pages outlining the specs on the device and ably describing the Samjiyon’s software capabilities.

As far as software is concerned, the tablet, which runs on Google Inc.’s Android operating system, offers a wealth of applications — some 488 preloaded onto the device, by Mr. Frank’s count.

That includes games like Angry Birds, a “fully functional” MicrosoftMSFT +0.34% Office package (Microsoft Corp. had no immediate comment on the apparent installation of its software on the device), a PDF reader and a music player. There are Siri-like voice-recognition functionalities, as well as an amply-stocked digital bookshelf of dictionaries (high quality, Mr. Frank says), encyclopedias (“quite sophisticated”) and e-books (expect plenty of Kim Il Sung here, though Dickens, Hugo and Balzac are also present).

The Samjiyon tablet, Mr. Frank concludes, is “a remarkable device,” and “tremendously useful” to anyone trying to understand the country.

According to Mr. Frank, the device can’t actually connect to the Internet, and while the device is designed to access North Korea’s domestic intranet, Mr. Frank said he could find no way to do so. (As a foreigner, he notes that he wouldn’t have permission to access the intranet anyway.)

That North Korea can develop and sell such a tablet is a reminder of the technological prowess of a country that, while little understood, has developed enough expertise to become an ever-present online threat to the government websites in South Korea – one of the most wired and technologically savvy countries in the world.

It also highlights the fact that North Korea, for all its economic woes and human rights abuses, has an upper crust of elites with ample disposable income and an appetite for fancy gadgets.

“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,” Mr. Frank wrote in the review, referring to the country by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The tablet is not just another toy of a typical consumer-oriented society,” he said. “It is a useful and entertaining device for a minority in a totalitarian system with a dominant ideology.”

In a phone interview from his office in Vienna, Mr. Frank said that the tablet was still in heavy use, though his iPad is still his go-to device.

“The major disadvantage for a Western client is you can’t connect to the Internet, but for everything else, it’s actually quite nice,” he said. “I was impressed by the sophistication of the software.”


That North Korea can develop and sell such a tablet is a reminder of the technological prowess of a country

What a ludicrous statement!  In one of the videos/sites I saw how one of them was taken apart and it was noted how at least one part was nearly identical to a Chinese version of this tablet.  To me, I’m willing to bet this thing was made in China.  Maybe some assembly in NK but actual start-to-finish in NK?  Not so much.

Also, this 7″ form factor came directly from Samsung’s 7″ Galaxy Tab.  The shape, size and probably even weight is nearly identical to the 7″ tab used to have a few years ago.  It’s the same design/size/case as my wife’s cheapie tablet that she has right now.  This 7″ casing has been shuffled around many of the ‘less-than-technically-advanced’ companies.  It’s like Samsung sold the rights to use this form factor and now is making money from North Korea using it.  I would be interested in hearing from those who are detailed about the origin of this form factor.

In any case, it’s a cheap tablet that will eventually make a few rounds and get hacked to run more up-to-date/customizable software.  I’d even say that someone will get the WiFi working on it soon too.

Author: DragonDon

Having a love of travel has lead me to move to South Korea in 2010. Moving to an Eastern culture from a Western culture is a wild experience and there is never a dull day!

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