Increasing risk for traders making phones calls to China

Barbed wire along the Sino-North Korea border. Image: Daily NK

The North Korean authorities have installed additional mobile phone surveillance stations along the Sino-North Korean border to track calls between North Koreans and cross-border contacts, Daily NK has learned.

Mobile phones are popular in the cities located on the border with China in North Pyongan, Ryanggang and North Hamgyong provinces and are used to arrange smuggling activities or money transactions with contacts in China. They are also used to call relatives who have defected.

The North Korean Ministry of State Security (MSS) and other agencies have improved the functionality of their wiretapping equipment, and smugglers and traders who make frequent calls to China have come under intense scrutiny.

“MSS agents record the content of phone calls occurring within a 4 km radius of the surveillance equipment,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on November 27. “An MSS agent that a trader knew even told him to ‘stop making calls’ after the agent told him about what had been recorded on a call he made.”

Mobile phone signal trackers can pinpoint the location of a mobile phone in relation to a nearby mobile communications base station, while wiretapping devices capture the electronic signal and record conversations. The content of the recordings can be used to threaten or blackmail residents.

Even traders working at foreign currency-earning enterprises approved by the government are scrutinized by the authorities. If they attempt to skim profits off the top of a deal with a Chinese company, for example, such plans can be detected in the conversations.

However, there are still traders who claim that wiretaps are only used to “scare people” and no problems will occur if they are careful about what they say on the phone.

Many traders, nonetheless, are using “conversation apps” instead of phone calls to conduct their business due to the danger of being tracked or wiretapped by government authorities.

“There has been a lot more contact with foreigners this year than in the past and the inter-Korean relationship is continuing to get better, so ordinary residents are hopeful that the current atmosphere will change,” said a North Pyongan Province-based source.

“The law enforcement authorities, however, are always cracking down on access to outside information and have strengthened surveillance on people deemed to be ‘ideologically impure.’”

A source in North Hamgyong Province added, “The security agencies typically use a lot of their budget toward the end of the year, so there’s consequently a lot of crackdowns. They need to collect extra money to use for end-of-year events.”