Informants target Chinese mobile phone users

In an ongoing bid to tighten control on communication with the outside world, North Korean security authorities are actively soliciting informants to arrest users of foreign mobile phones on “espionage charges.”

The informants are tasked with monitoring fellow residents suspected of placing international calls and reporting their findings back to the local State Security Department (SSD) unit, a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Tuesday. 

“Informants employ different tactics to try to induce confidants to place calls to the South, like encouraging them to call their loved ones and check in or ask for money in the case of financial troubles,” she explained. The goal, she added, is for the SSD officers to arrive on the scene and arrest the transgressors for “attempting to overthrow the regime.”

This method is not new. SSD personnel routinely employ threatening tactics to coerce their informants to report on the perceived illicit acts of subjects under their monitoring purview. 

Informants, in most cases, comply with these terms in return for favorable treatment in their own criminal cases. For example, agents may offer early release to prisoners who are in re-education camps for lighter crimes if they agree to work as moles. 

“These informants end up with no choice but to monitor their neighbors’ every move while pretending to treat them like family. Residents in the ‘hostile class’ [within the songbun classification system, which is based on family political background and loyalty] typically top the list for increased surveillance,” she explained.

A separate source in North Hamgyong Province reported a recent incident to highlight how duplicitous these informants can be. When a close friend of woman in her 50s, known to be placing phone calls to South Korea on a Chinese cell phone, reported her activity to the SSD, “the community was shocked,” he said. “The two of them were so close.” 

Luckily, the woman evaded espionage charges and arrest. However, “the sentiment on the ground is that there’s no one left to trust,” the source said. “People are worried the state is succeeding in tearing us apart from the inside.”

Thus far, patchy implementation, bribery, and residents’ adaptability counter the efficacy of the leadership’s efforts to stymie the pervasive use of Chinese mobile phones by North Koreans in border regions. 

Nonetheless, tension naturally runs high when clampdowns are underway.  “Those who depend on placing outside calls to make a living are getting by day to day  at the moment, never forgetting the inherent risks involved,” the source said. 

The same could be said for security forces desperate to avoid implication. As previously reported by Daily NK, an Ministry of People’s Security official in Ryanggang Province was arrested for pocketing bribes to turn a blind eye to residents placing phone calls to South Korea.