Cellphone Use Drops as Detectors Close in

The North Korean authorities have imported new signal detectors that allow security agents to locate users of Chinese-made cellphones in border areas within minutes, a Daily NK source has revealed.  This latest measure, believed to be connected with the upcoming 13th Supreme People’s Assembly elections, is targeting those attempting to make contact with family members who have escaped to South Korea.

“The recent arrival of the new detection equipment in the border areas near the Tumen River has resulted in the arrest of seven people in Hoeryeong alone. One person was arrested when making a phone call up in the mountains, and another was nabbed at a border patrol post on their way home after calling someone,” the source from North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on the 3rd.

The capacity for the North Korean authorities to trace Chinese-made cellphones is growing ever greater, the source assessed.  In Hoeryeong, signal detectors set up in the People’s Security Offices remain switched on to weed out those communicating with the outside world. If a signal is picked up, a call is made via a North Korean-made cellphone to notify security personnel on the ground. Agents in possession of hand-held detectors are then dispatched directly to the site.

“The seven arrested in Hoeryeong were suspected of attempting to escape to South Korea, and the families of those caught were investigated by security agents for 24 hours,” the source said, before explaining that, “The security agents kept turning the cellphone on and demanding they reveal who they were speaking to.  The families under interrogation had their hearts in their mouth, deeply anxious that a call would come through [when the agent was present].”

It is believed that such measures are likely to see a drop in the use of Chinese-made cellphones for the foreseeable future.  People frequently used to make phone calls in the dead of night within their own homes, but an increased imports of signal detectors throughout the border regions by the end of the 2000s saw people make their way into the hills in an attempt to communicate with the outside.  

Another tactic to evade the detectors has typically been practiced throughout the winter months, the source reported. Wearing earphones hidden from view by bulky scarves and hats, people communicated in broad daylight while riding their bikes along deserted roads, thus making it difficult to agents to pinpoint the source of the signal. 
The arrival of the new equipment is likely to put a stop to this, the source warned, as signals can now be located in real time.
Moreover, “Agents in the security office in Hoeryeong have been overheard boasting that they can make an arrest in three minutes after a signal is picked up. There are even cases when people walking past guard stations are picked out and beaten just for looking suspicious. The security agents are very active now, and some people are so scared they have just stopped using their Chinese-made cellphones all together.”

It is yet unclear if this latest measure will continue over the long-term. “People are saying that once the Supreme People’s Assembly elections wrap up [on March 9th] then restrictions may ease a little. But the measures have borne fruit, so it’s possible they will continue,” said the source.
“No news is good news in this case. The wisest move at this stage is for phone owners to take out the battery and bury the phone in the ground for a while.”

A second source from North Hamkyung Province confirmed, “Some people are wondering if the province is subject to such dreadful controls because Jang Song Taek originally hailed from Chongjin. Controls over [Chinese-made] cellphones are commonly beefed up from early in the year until the Day of the Sun [the birthday of Kim Il Sung], but this is the first time they have been this intense.”

Continuing, the source revealed, “The people are now indirectly expressing their dissatisfaction, saying things like, ‘The only thing they are doing to realize the scientific and technological growth of the nation is keeping watch over the back of ordinary people’s heads.'”
Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.