North Korean authorities have apparently taken their sweeping operation against the use of Chinese-made mobile phones to the next level, instituting tough measures against offenders by confiscating their homes and exiling their families. 

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Friday that the Ministry of State Security put a woman in her 20s—identified by her family name of Han—under emergency arrest in Hoeryong in early July. “In the end, Han was recently sent to a political prison camp on charges of espionage, her family was exiled to a rural area and their house was confiscated,” he said.

Given that North Korean security authorities have generally punished only the offender in illegal Chinese-made mobile phone cases, the confiscation of Han’s home and the exiling of her family are considered quite extraordinary.

According to the source, Han handed over money to the family of a North Korean defector in early July. Basically, this means she was a “remittance broker,” transferring the funds through Chinese-made mobile phones. On her way home, however, she was reportedly arrested by the Ministry of Social Security.

The authorities charged Han with having “transferred money” since February of 2018 and, in the process, conducting espionage by leaking dozens of pieces of domestic information in return for money. The source said Han was further charged with being a “middleman” connecting the border region with the country’s interior and delivering “operational expenses.”

In particular, the authorities searched her home and found RMB 60,000 and USD 27,000. The source said investigators believed Han spied in return for “dirty money” from South Korean intelligence.

Merchant cell phone
A North Korean merchant using a cell phone at a local market. / Image: Daily NK

Relatedly, the source said the only option open to people in border regions to make money is “to connect people who went to South Korea with their families [in North Korea] and convey news in the process.”

“Frankly, it only depends on whether the Ministry of State Security decides to press charges,” he said, adding, “When you enter a Ministry of State Security interrogation room, the torture and violence is so bad you’ll confess even to things you didn’t do. How could a young woman in her 20s withstand the torture of the Ministry of State Security? It’s likely they got her to write a confession through violence.”

On the ground, locals note that while the sweeping operation to “mop up” illegal mobile phone use has been ongoing, ostensibly part of quarantine efforts against COVID-19, the authorities are now instituting tougher punishments to generate a climate of fear as efforts to eradicate the problem fail.

In fact, the authorities reportedly announced in May that they planned to institute a “guilt by association system” by confiscating the homes of offenders and exiling their families. It is likely Han, too, was caught up in this operation.

“In the past, you could resolve this problem with connections or money, but recently, the authorities are responding to users of Chinese-made mobile phones in extraordinary fashion,” said the source. “Now, locals are refraining as much as possible from contacting the outside world.”

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