We were reminded by a New York Times blog post by Erich Pfanner of the North Korean tablet device, the Samjiyon. We first got wind of the Samjiyon following coverage last May at Martyn Williams’ great North Korea Tech blog. The device was rolled out by a subsidiary of the Korean Computer Center called the New Information Technology Trade Company. According to the spokesman at the time, “the tablet was invented by the Korea Computer Center to enable people to study revolutionary ideas, to use science and technology, to carry out their business and to enjoy movies.”
The lead of the Times post is the fact that it has no access to the web, only to the North Korean intranet. Surprise, surprise! The real question is “where does this thing really come from?”
We now have some insight into this issue, again thanks to write-ups by Martyn Williams at IT World and even more detail back at his own blog. It looks like the motherboards are made by a Hong Kong-based firm, but that the Android-based tablet probably comes from China. Localization is in the software, which includes some apps, games and educational materials.
There are a lot of ways to spin this story, and of course the absence of access to the web is the most obvious hook. But there is another way to look at this: if North Korea joined the modern world, there are technical capabilities that would allow it to find a niche in the region’s dynamic electronics industry. That niche could involve some development–perhaps in areas such as software and animation–but also assembly. Look how others in the region fared initially pursuing that route, and from South Korea to Singapore. Why not North Korea?
The answer can be found by looking no further than the Kaesong saga. You can import tablets with cash. You become a site for manufacturing by participating in international production networks. You participate in such networks by establishing your credibility as a place where foreign firms can make money; its as simple as that.