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N Korea eases foreign mobiles curbs

North Korea is loosening some restrictions on foreign mobile phones by allowing visitors to bring their own handsets into the country.

However, security regulations still prohibit mobile phone calls between foreigners and locals.

For years, North Korea required visitors to relinquish foreign mobiles at the border until their departure, leaving most tourists without a way to communicate with the outside world.

The ritual of handing over phones was part of exhaustive security and many visitors - including Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, who travelled to North Korea earlier this month - choose to leave their phones behind in Beijing before flying to Pyongyang.

Now, foreigners can bring qualifying phones into the country and purchase a SIM card for use in North Korea, or rent a handset with a SIM card which allows them to call most foreign countries, foreign embassies in Pyongyang and international hotels in the North Korean capital, according to 3G mobile phone service provider Koryolink.

However, foreigners will not be able to communicate by mobile phone with local North Koreans, whose handsets operate on a separate network, and they will not have access to the internet using locally provided SIM cards. They can phone Japan and the United States, but not South Korea.

Mobile phone use has multiplied in North Korea since Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom built a 3G network in North Korea four years ago.

More than a million people are using mobiles in North Korea, according to Orascom Telecom Media and Technology, which runs Koryolink as part of a joint venture with North Korea's telecommunications ministry called Cheo Technology JV.

The 3G network also provides North Koreans with access to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper for a fee, but not to the global internet.

On Friday, Koryolink saleswomen were setting up mobile phone rental booths at Pyongyang's Sunan airport. One poster depicting a woman in a traditional Korean dress with a phone pressed to her ear read: "Here You Can Buy Koryolink Visitor Line."

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