A Cell Phone Crackdown Full of Holes

For much of 2012 and on into this year, the North Korean security forces have been officially cracking down on the use of cell phones to make calls abroad. This has led the North Korean people to new levels of resourcefulness in their effort to circumvent the repressive moves. For many years now people have made calls in secret at home or by travelling far from urban areas to make calls from local mountains, but more recently they have even started making calls while on the move.

A Yangkang Province source told Daily NK on the 30th, “Even in the cold winter everyone wears scarves or mufflers, so the people who have Chinese mobile phones can use earphones with their phones and nobody knows they are talking.”

The source added, “It is hard for the North Korean security agents to figure out who is using an illegal phone because they are riding fast on bikes or walking at a clip down the street. It is hard to hit upon certain individuals because almost everyone is dressed the same way.”

According to the source, people have begun to use their phones in this way because previous methods of avoiding capture made them too vulnerable to being detected electronically. Calls made from mountainous areas are easily tracked, for example, and as a result people were getting caught as they came back down. It is much harder to track a moving target.

Naturally, the National Security Agency knows that people use their phones in this way; however, it would be extremely hard to confiscate every scarf in the border region, especially when there is also the need to distinguish people acting illegally from those innocently using domestic cell phones or listening to music with earphones.

“The average foreign currency dealer will carry around both a domestic mobile phone and a Chinese one,” the source pointed out, offering an example. “So if a security officer comes by while they are talking on the phone, they just act as if they were using the domestic one.”

Naturally for such a corrupt country, even those who are caught and arrested for illegal use of a Chinese cell phone can avoid further censure. Officially, making illegal international calls is punishable with a fine and confiscation of the phone. If reports of illegal phone use are passed to the National Security Agency, the fine is larger and the culprit faces six months in a labor camp as well. If one is caught with a more up-to-date phone, the fine is doubled. However, in reality most people who are caught pay bribes to avoid further punishment.

The source stated, “70 to 80% give bribes to the security agents so that they won’t report it. These days such many of them even have close relations with the local security forces, and get 24 hours notice of any crackdowns that way.”