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Economy

North Korea's cell phone users triple

Mobile tally and GDP growth suggest rising living standards, but truth unclear

SEOUL -- The number of cell phone users in North Korea has more than tripled in five years to 3.61 million in 2016, South Korea's national statistical office said Friday.

The figure marked an 11% year-on-year increase, Statistics Korea said, based on materials from the International Telecommunication Union, a specialist agency of the United Nations. The tally has grown steadily since 2009, the first year of available data.

The North's real gross domestic product also grew 3.9% in 2016, according to estimates by the Bank of Korea, the South's central bank.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has directed the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear development and economic growth. Statistics give the appearance of rising standards of living for the North's people, but with international sanctions tightening, the true state of its economy is unclear.

Mobile phones are classified as a luxury good in the North, where authorities apparently procure them overseas to be sold in state-run shops that accept only foreign currency. The numbers suggest Pyongyang is using the phones as a means to absorb foreign currency from its wealthier residents.

The North's gross national income in 2016 came to about 36.3 trillion South Korean won, or around $33.3 billion, according to a Statistics Korea report based on estimations by the South's central bank and the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency.

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