Amid heightened levels of surveillance and border control, an increasing number of North Koreans in the border areas are purchasing South Korean smartphones, which they perceive as more secure from detection by the authorities.
“Most smugglers own mobile phones that enable them to communicate across the border, but recently an increasing number of residents are looking for South Korean touch-phones (smartphones). There are rumors that the South Korean phones are not as easily detectable by the devices used by the security agencies,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 1.
“Some say that residents with South Korean smartphones are able to send texts and pictures more quickly and evade detection. For this reason, individuals are paying large sums of money to smugglers for South Korean phones.”
South Korean smartphones were only popular among some traders and students staying in China from early 2010, but as their quality became recognized among the North Korean elite, they also became gradually more popular among ordinary North Koreans.
Originally, electronic communication near the border areas primarily consisted of voice calls. People made business transactions by checking the market price of goods and negotiating deals over the phone. But as the use of smartphones has spread, the number of residents communicating through messaging apps like Kakaotalk or Line is increasing.
The speed of information transfer in the North Korean border area is largely determined by internet infrastructure in China, but North Korean residents are saying that the newer mobile phones speed up the process.
“Residents believe that South Korean mobile phones are superior to Chinese ones in terms of overcoming radio interference and evading detection. When offered Chinese phones for sale, residents often request South Korean brands instead,” a source in North Pyongan Province noted.
She explained that the primary reason why North Korean people seek South Korean phones is to avoid the rising levels of surveillance by the authorities.
“There are not many alternatives, because we are treated as anti-revolutionary elements if we use Chinese mobile phones, and the North Korean products don’t work [for international calls]. Some bold smugglers purchase the latest South Korean touch-phones (smartphones) that have a similar appearance with the North Korean products and openly make calls in the streets,” she said.
A source in Ryanggang Province added, “The Ministry of State Security has recruited some residents to monitor and report on people who make international calls in exchange for permission to engage in smuggling activities to and from China. Those who have become aware of this are saving up to buy their own South Korean mobile phones instead of borrowing them.”