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FILE PHOTO: The Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge.(©Daily NK)

The North Korean authorities have recently begun conducting sweeping inspections of trading companies, Daily NK has learned. The authorities are apparently seeking to establish discipline in the trading sector, which is in danger of becoming lax as more provincial companies become involved in trading activities.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in North Korea told Daily NK that local branches of the Ministry of State Security “began investigating trade officials with foreign currency-earning agencies in the middle of last month.” He said the inspectors are making sure that the officials “have not been involved in illegal activities such as smuggling outside the guidelines for overseas activities.”

According to the source, the authorities are focusing their attention on individuals who smuggled medicinal herbs, minerals and other items, people who pushed contract manufacturing activities not approved by the state, and the heads of foreign currency-earning trade bases involved in exporting North Korean labor.

In particular, the source said, trade officials “confirmed to have used Chinese cell phones to contact unidentified traders are being investigated for espionage.”

Contacting Chinese merchants using Chinese cell phones is a natural part of conducting trade transactions, but authorities are taking issue with it as they scrutinize cell phone records.

Ministry of State Security officials say they inspect cell phones because traders “often introduce anti-socialist factors into our society by illegally using cell phones, allegedly for foreign exchange activities.”

Since enacting a law to eradicate reactionary thought and culture in late 2020, North Korea has severely restricted the use of Chinese cell phones. Trade officials are apparently no exception, with authorities taking issue with their use of Chinese cell phones for work.

Daily NK previously reported that more trade officials are using email to communicate with Chinese traders, with North Korean authorities restricting them from using Chinese cell phones.

State security agents review cell phone records to weed out “spies”

In addition, North Korean authorities are placing trade officials under immediate arrest and subjecting them to criminal penalties if they discover suspicious calls on their Chinese cell phones.

“State security agents even check the IDs of people you talked to when they look at your cell phone records,” the source said. “If they find that you contacted them for personal reasons rather than business, they confiscate your phone and accuse you of spying.”

As authorities punish wayward officials more harshly, North Korean trading companies are running scared.

“If you’re caught spying, not even a bribe will help you escape punishment,” the source said. “Trade officials avoid using Chinese cell phones as much as possible for fear that using them could lead to problems.”

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

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