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North Korea lets foreigners bring in cell phones

One of the most isolated countries on the planet lifts its cell phone ban for visitors. However, there's still no talking to locals.

North Korea's army. CBS/Randy Schmidt

North Korea is easing some of strict cell phone rules -- now, visitors can bring their own mobile devices into the country, according to the Associated Press.

While this may seem like a minor move on the part of the North Korean government, it is actually a big step for one of the most closed-off countries in the world. Despite the ease in regulations, foreigners are still not allowed to talk to any locals via mobile device.

For years North Korea's authorities made visitors leave their cell phones at the border or airport when arriving to the country, according to the Associated Press. Now, the new rules allow foreigners to bring their own WCDMA-compatible phones or rent a mobile and buy a local SIM card at the airport. These SIM cards allow calls to Japan and the U.S., but not South Korea.

This change in the rules may have been brought on by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt's recent trip to the country in his push to get North Korea's government to give its citizens more Internet access. On his visit, Schmidt elected to leave his phone in China and rent a local handset.

"We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware," Schmidt's daughter, who accompanied her father to North Korea, wrote in a blog post yesterday.

North Korea is known for restricting its citizens' access to cell phones. In 2008, the government banned the use of cell phones to prevent its residents from sharing news about a worsening food crisis. And in December 2010, after the death of president Kim Jong-il, all cell phone use was prohibited during a 100-day mourning period. Those people caught using a mobile device were considered war criminals and "punished accordingly."

The ongoing bans on cell phones seems to stem from the government's desire to keep a tight rein on information flow in and out of the country. According to the Associated Press, more than 1 million North Koreans now have cell phones and that number is growing. However, 1 million people is still less than 5 percent of the country's total population.