Customs checkpoints in North Korea are intensifying inspections of handheld data storage devices such as USBs and at times preventing the devices from being brought into the country, Daily NK sources have reported.

The heightened inspections may be related to a recent major arrest of ‘smugglers’ of external information in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, in July. A large number of people including Ministry of State Security (MSS) officials and police officers were arrested or called in for questioning in the city after accessing foreign movies, dramas and other foreign media. Daily NK sources suggest that foreign media may have been leaked into the country through so-called “stealth USBs.” 

“These stealth USBs typically appear blank and new but then after being used a couple of times reveal foreign videos and other content,” a Daily NK source said on Wednesday. “That may be why customs checkpoints in North Hamgyong Province are taking a more careful look and prohibiting some new USBs from being brought into the country.” 

The source also noted that a customs officer familiar to him told North Korean traders traveling to China not to bring USBs back as they could “cause problems.” 

Generally, North Korean customs checkpoints conduct full inspections of books and CDs, but new USBs have not been subject to such inspections in the absence of unusual circumstances. The authorities are now aware of these “stealth USBs” and have intensified inspections accordingly. 

Some North Korean traders have become more suspicious of USBs given to them as friendly gestures by Chinese business people, another Daily NK source added. 

“North Korean traders now tend to ask why the Chinese business people are giving them USBs and sometimes refuse to accept them,” the source said. 

Given that North Korea’s feared Ministry of State Security (MSS) became involved in the Chongjin arrests, traders appear to be feeling pressure to avoid undue attention from the authorities. 

The North Korean authorities have often meted out harsh punishment to scapegoats in order to deter more widespread criminal activity. 

Daily NK sources report that they have only confirmed that customs checkpoints in North Hamgyong Province have cracked down on storage devices such as USBs.

“It’s likely, however, that [other provinces on the Sino-North Korean border such as] North Pyongan, Jagang and Ryanggang provinces have taken similar measures to intensify inspections of USBs and other storage devices,” one of the sources said. 

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