Tinder's official Twitter account had a bit of a meltdown late on Tuesday, over a Vanity Fair article that portrayed the dating app's users as vapid sex seekers. Perhaps the oddest tweet it sent was this one, implying that Tinder is in fact such a source for good in the world that it is even bringing people together in totalitarian North Korea:
Talk to our many users in China and North Korea who find a way to meet people on Tinder even though Facebook is banned.— Tinder (@Tinder) August 11, 2015
So is it true? Are North Koreans really using Tinder?
It's hard to say anything for sure when it comes to a society as closed off from the world as North Korea, but the answer is probably not. This is a totalitarian police state, after all, where citizens are kept locked inside an internet-free society. It's not like China or Iran, where certain social media services are blocked but users can get around them with things like proxy services. Logging on is just not possible.
So it seems pretty unlikely that North Korea would allow citizens to use a Western social networking app, or even that North Koreans would have the means to get it illegally.
That said, it's possible — possible! — that there might be a smidgeon of truth to Tinder's claim, though perhaps not in the way Tinder believes.
There is, you will be unsurprised to hear, not a whole lot of research on the specific question of whether North Koreans use Tinder. But Tinder is an app for iOS and Android mobile devices, which is to say mostly smartphones, and we do have pretty good information on North Korean smartphones. Here are the three most salient facts:
1) North Korea does make its own smartphone, but it can't run Tinder
It's called the Arirang, and it's the only smartphone that North Koreans are permitted to use. While North Korea claims to make it domestically, in fact it is Chinese-produced, using parts from China as well as Taiwan, and runs a version of the Android operating system.
The Arirang, which is reportedly not a very good smartphone, comes preloaded with a few dozen applications. Reportedly, these apps are just pirated versions of early-generation Android apps, such as a dictionary tool that is chock full of pro-regime information, and a few shoddy ripoff copies of games (yes, Angry Birds is one of them).
There is no functionality in the phone for downloading additional apps or accessing the internet. This means there is no way to download or use Tinder on the Arirang, which is the only smartphone that North Koreans can legally use.
2) Some North Koreans smuggle in outside smartphones, but never connect them to the internet or cell service
Foreign smartphones are illegal in North Korea, where security services go to great lengths to ban outside information or entertainment. (Foreign films, the authorities worry, could reveal to North Koreans that their propaganda is mostly lies.) Censors and police actively seek out foreign smartphones; possessing one can land you in jail.
That said, there is a great deal of smuggling between China and North Korea over their shared border — there has been ever since the famine of the 1990s, when North Korea had to tolerate a bit of smuggling so their citizens wouldn't starve. Reportedly, and unsurprisingly, some of that smuggling now includes Chinese-made smartphones.
The reason some North Koreans are buying illegally smuggled Chinese smartphones is not to go online — connecting the phone to local cell networks would presumably alert authorities to the presence of the highly illegal device — but rather as media storage devices. Movies or music might be smuggled in via physical devices such as thumb drives or hard drives, then transferred to the smartphones.
If you have an Arirang phone, or another officially sanctioned North Korean phone, then the authorities are liable to search it for any illegal material. This might include, say, South Korean music, or pornography, or Chinese or American movies. Possessing that can land you in jail. So what some people reportedly do is buy a smuggled Chinese smartphone and use it to store their illegal foreign entertainment.
All of this is pretty expensive, especially by North Korean standards, so it's only an option for the country's wealthiest few. But even for them, they would not be able to connect the phone to local cell services or to internet-connected wifi (the latter does not exist in North Korea), and thus would not be able to access Tinder.
Based on these first two facts, it is extremely difficult to imagine that any North Koreans could be using Tinder. They simply would not be able to access it. Even if they could, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking it would be a good idea to risk meeting up with a stranger over a Western dating app, when merely having that app is a crime. It would be a little like asking American serial killers to sign up for a public dating service that advertises itself as only for serial killers. You're sort of asking to have the cops show up.
In other words, the mocking tweets that Tinder got for this claim were deserved:
3) Foreigners in North Korea can have foreign smartphones and could use Tinder
When I jokingly asked the excellent North Korea news service NKNews.org whether Tinder's tweet was the dumbest tweet about North Korea ever sent, whoever runs the site's Twitter feed pointed something out: There are a number of foreigners in North Korea, particularly from China, and they are allowed to use smartphones.
So while North Koreans are almost certainly not using Tinder, it is possible that some foreigners — say, Chinese tourists or businesspeople spending the week in Pyongyang — are using Tinder. This might be why Tinder thinks it has North Koreans users: Perhaps its staffers looked at geolocation data for Tinder usage, saw some pings within North Korea, and concluded that they had brought romance to the hermit kingdom.
It's an understandable mistake. Still, you have to wonder: If Tinder believed it had North Korean users, did Tinder executives really think it was worth announcing that to the world, as they did on Tuesday, just to bolster their Twitter rant? You have to be a little grateful that they were probably wrong; otherwise, their North Korean Tinder users would have to wonder if they'd just been put in danger. Thankfully, such users probably do not actually exist.