SEOUL — A surge in mobile phone use in North Korea is likely to spark curbs by Pyongyang which is anxious to stop its people gaining information about the outside world, a top South Korean official said Tuesday.
The number of cellphone users in the communist state has risen to 450,000, up 50 percent from a figure released last year by an Egyptian service provider, Vice Unification Minister Um Jong-Sik told a forum in Seoul.
"This shows the range of people using mobile communications is diversifying after being limited only to the elite," he said.
The ministry said Um was citing figures reported by Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan, in February.
Um, however, said the increase would not translate into freer information sources in the North, adding that the Kim dynasty has responded "sensitively" to news from around the world.
"After watching the spread of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, North Korea is expected to strengthen its control further over any elements endangering its system," he said.
Cairo-based Orascom Telecom, which launched a mobile phone service in Pyongyang in late 2008, had said the number of subscribers jumped to 301,199 by end-September 2010 from 69,261 a year earlier.
Activists say it is difficult for the North's mobile users to make or receive overseas calls because of limited service and tight oversight. The phones only provide a limited Internet service.
North Korea strictly controls access to outside information and fixes the tuning controls of radios and televisions to official stations, although DVDs and mobile phones smuggled from China have been eroding barriers.
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