Cell phone proliferation and use in North Korea

The number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea doubled to more than two million last year. Koryolink, a joint venture between the state-ownedKorea Post and the Egyptian company Orascom, has passed two million subscribers in a country of about 24 million people.

North Korean defectors tell VOA that many go out of their way to purchase mobile phones, selling hard-earned crops or housewares. Cell phones have become status symbols, signs of prosperity, and one of the most noticeable examples of conspicuous consumption in North Korea. A man from Chongjin who defected in December 2012 said “cell [phones] have become so popular that a young man without a cell phone is not treated well and could not even find a girlfriend.”

In the reclusive state, mobile phones are primarily used for entertainment purposes. Think tablet computers – without the Internet.  Cell phone users use the handset to take pictures, watch videos and play games. North Koreans often use Chinese-made printers to print out photos taken with their mobile phones,

Defectors explained calls were usually reserved for emergencies, to avoid expensive top-up fees. A basic plan comes with just 200 minutes of calling and 20 text messages.

There are no signs that North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world. On the contrary, Pyongyang appears to be using the wide distribution of mobile phones to maintain and solidify its stability. One defector explained, “It is stupid to criticize the regime on the cell phone, which does more harm than good, when the call rate is exorbitant.”

It isn’t just the money factor, though, that is stopping cell phone users from actually using the handsets for communication. Authorities monitor all text messages, along with location data in real-time. Voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years according to a former North Korean security agent. Also, there are no international calls allowed, and Internet access is banned for all but the ruling elite.

He told VOA that security guards often stop and question cell phone users on the street to search for any “politically inappropriate” content on their phones, especially South Korean soap dramas. An officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion.

Despite the North Korean government’s success at suppressing the flow of information through the mobile phone network, the network could potentially widen loopholes for information to flow to and from the reclusive state. For example, amateur reporters can record data on their cell phone memory card and transfer it to illegal Chinese cell phones to convey the information to foreign media outlets. Rimjin-gang, a Japan-based magazine featuring news and information from undercover North Korean reporters, says it has used this method to get hidden camera video out of the country.

[VoA]

The Information Age stifled in North Korea

With one million cell phones in North Korea and a government-sponsored intranet, the regime believes it can survive the advent of information technology by restricting its use to the most elite of the population who have the largest stake in the survival of the regime as it currently exists.

North Korea intentionally restricts access to information to control its population.  TV and radios in North Korea are hardwired to only receive government-controlled media. Foreign newspapers and periodicals are forbidden.

North Koreans are not free to travel within the country without government permission. Foreigners who visit North Korea are carefully controlled by their (two) minders who keep them from interacting with the North Korean populace. In short, North Korea has traditionally viewed controlling the flow of information to its population as a fundamental necessity to ensure the survival of the state.

It is surprising then to see that the North Korea state has sanctioned the use of cell phones and other information technology. There are now more than 1 million third-generation cell phones in North Korea, as part of the Koryolink cell phone system. These phones can call other members of the Koryolink network, but cannot make calls outside of the country.

There is also a state-sponsored intranet in North Korea, called Kwangmyong. The intranet is restricted to elites in North Korea with good social standing. The intranet features message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media; its use has also been encouraged among university students, technical experts and scientists, and others to exchange information.

Very few North Koreans have access to the unfiltered Internet. Andrei Lankov, a leading North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, estimated this number to be “a few dozen families” including Kim Jong-Un’s clan. Other select North Koreans may have restricted and/or monitored access to the Internet to gather data on the U.S. and South Korea, find content to populate the intranet, and maintain the North Korean government’s propaganda web sites.

Crackdown on cell phones along North Korean border

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has launched an unprecedented multi-agency campaign to crack down on illegal cell phones along the country’s border with China by tracking signals and sending security forces to nab the callers, according to sources in the area.

The move is aimed at closing off one of the few connections to the outside world from isolated North Korea. In areas close to the country’s northern border with China, North Koreans using phones smuggled in from the neighboring country can connect to Chinese cell phone towers to make outside calls.

But since the beginning of October, authorities have tightened restrictions on the phones and begun using radio monitoring stations to spot illegal cell phone signals, according to a source in North Hamgyong province. Once a signal is detected, a search force is immediately dispatched to the area to nab the culprit, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In addition to radio monitoring stations, military bases and the national police department’s special task forces are involved in the crackdown effort, the source said. “They are mobilizing even the posts of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards,” the country’s civilian defense force, the source said.

Previous curbs on illegal cell phones had not involved so many agencies or such a sophisticated method of detecting signals and finding callers, but did significantly reduce the number of people illegally crossing the river border into China.