Crackdown on South Korean media continues despite North-South ‘thaw’

Sources inside North Korea have reported on a recent decision by the authorities to hand down severe punishment to six people charged with spying and treason for making phone calls to South Korea. Despite an outward appearance of warming North-South relations with the recent high-level talks occurring between the Koreas, anti-South Korean domestic policies remain unchanged. 
 
During a phone call from Ryanggang Province on January 15, one source said that the six prisoners were transferred from the local State Security detention center to a larger prison around January 10. The group was reportedly caught making international calls with Chinese-made mobile phones in the border region with China, and were charged with espionage (Article 64 of the North Korean Constitution) and treason (Article 63), which officially carry sentences of 7-11 years imprisonment. 
 
“The authorities are saying that any communication with South Korea can be considered to contain state secrets. Their designation of the possession of a Chinese mobile phone as an act of espionage has also caused disruptions for traders in China and residents in the North who use the phones to send and receive remittances,” he said.
 
State Security officials have also recently strengthened their system for reporting those using Chinese mobile phones. The source said that these days, “people won’t carry out requests even from close acquaintances to make phone calls (to China or South Korea).”
 
Residents of large cities like Pyongyang can also expect to feel the effects of a crackdown on viewing South Korean dramas and other foreign entertainment. A source in Pyongyang added that “in accordance with the Group 109 (he squad in charge of controlling external media) enforcement crackdown, almost no one is watching South Korean dramas anymore.” 
 
Although the popularity of South Korean entertainment among North Koreans has soared in recent years, the government appears determined to instill fear in citizens over the viewing of such media. 
 
Kim Jong Un reiterated the country’s policy on foreign media in his 2018 New Year’s address, saying they will “crush the bourgeois reactionary culture” and that “a vigorous struggle should be waged to […] eliminate all kinds of non-socialist practices.”
 
The joint statement released after the January 9 North-South talks at Panmunjom may have said that the two sides plan to “step up cooperation on various kinds of inter-Korean exchanges,” but news of the crackdown on media possession indicates that the North Korean authorities will continue their relentless oppression of ordinary citizens. 
 
Meanwhile, a large-scale crackdown was initiated and mass arrests of residents making “illegal phone calls” occurred in the Chinese border regions last year following an incident involving top official Kim Won Hong. Sources have reported that the number of arrests in these regions has gone up considerably during the time since.
 
“Every morning, we wake up to news that yet more people have been arrested,” said a separate source in Ryanggang Province.
 
She added that the indiscriminate policy has led to serious problems for traders and merchants in the region who use mobile phones in the course of their business. The effects are then multiplied due to the significant bribes required to bail out family members arrested in these cases.
 
“People are subjected to such horrible physical treatment during the interrogation phase that once they are sent to prison, the odds of them surviving are slim. Relatives thus try to quickly bribe local authorities to reduce the severity of their punishment,” she said.
 
“The interrogators will say to the prisoner, ‘You got money? If you don’t, you’re gonna die, you know?’ It is through this kind of macabre language that they extract bribes from people.”
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