A cell phone user in PyongyangYoung Pioneer Tours, one of the handful of agencies taking tourists into North Korea, reports that a group just returned from the country were permitted by customs officials to take their cell phones into the country.

The news is intriguing because North Korea has long taken phones from visitors as they cross the border. The phones were kept in small pouches and returned to visitors as they were leaving the country.

Indeed, just a couple of weeks earlier, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and his party left their cell phones in Beijing before traveling to Pyongyang because they assumed they would be taken on entry.

But not on this most recent occasion, according to a post on the Young Pioneer Tours blog:

Richie has just returned from our first group tour of the year and brings some pretty big news! At the moment  the DPRK is saying you can bring phones into the country. Satellite phones are still banned, but for now at least the ban on bringing mobile phones into North Korea appears to be lifted. — Young Pioneer Tours blog, January 19, 2013.

It’s too early to tell if this is a change in strategy although NK News has additional information that indicates it’s more than just a mistake by a border guard.

Richie Fenner, a tour manager who was on the trip, told NK News:

When we were coming in on the train, they asked us to show us our phones. The customs official asked if the first one he looked at had GPS, which it didn’t, so he handed it back. But then with the iPhones and other modern phones when we told them they had GPS, he just handed them back and gestured that we just put them in our bag. — NK News, January 19, 2013.

An American tourist travelling with the group, who flew in by plane rather than took the overland railway route, was also permitted to keep his phone by officials at the airport.

Fenner told NK News that guides explained this was a new policy.

But being allowed to keep their cell phones didn’t mean they were useful. North Korea’s Koryolink network isn’t know to have any roaming agreements with international carriers.

Jenner’s guides apparently told him roaming “might be possible in the future,” and while that is undoubtedly true, I’m not so sure the guides are in a position to really know what Koryolink and the government are planning in that regard.

Opening the country’s cell phone network to international roaming could be a lucrative business for Koryolink, and in turn the government, which owns a stake in the carrier. So money is an incentive to allowing foreigners to bring in phones and make calls.

However, there are some security concerns.

Having the phones means any pictures taken with the handsets could be tagged with their GPS location — a possible concern for the security authorities in the country, although tourists are unlikely to venture to any locations that are really sensitive.

It also leaves open the possibility that the phones could be left in the country for North Koreans to use, although smuggling in phones one at a time via sightseeing tours isn’t a very effective way of doing that.

We’ll have to wait and see if this was a one-off, a temporary change to be reversed when the political climate changes, or a long-term change in policy.