North Korea recently imported more wiretapping equipment to crack down on international communications made by people in the Sino-North Korean border region, Daily NK has learned. 

“The crackdown on Chinese mobile phones has grown worse,” a source in North Pyongan Province told the Daily NK in a phone conversation on Wednesday. “They are even ferreting out text messages or phone calls made through WeChat.”

According to the source, the North Korean authorities imported communication surveillance equipment through China sometime around Sept. 20. The exact specifications or price of the equipment remains unconfirmed, but it is reportedly German-made.

North Korea’s existing equipment to bug communications focused on monitoring calls and text messages through base stations, making it unsuitable for cracking down on Internet-based messaging through Chinese apps.

North Koreans have preferred using WeChat over international phone calls when they have to talk with someone in China. It appears that WeChat will now be subject to surveillance in the days ahead. 

The move to strengthen control in the region is likely due to growing discontent among locals amid worsening economic conditions brought on by the closure of the border with China. 

Since the new wiretapping equipment has only recently been acquired, people caught using a Chinese mobile phone will not get off lightly with just a fine or time in a forced labor camp, according to the source, citing a rumor in the area. 

Hyesan killed
A view of Hyesan, Yanggang Province, from the Chinese side of the border. / Image: Daily NK

“Before, people who were friendly with cadres from the Ministry of State Security could avoid crackdowns by paying bribes, but now with the new equipment, they may face harsher punishments to be made examples of,” the source said. “Everyone is avoiding calling China.”

North Korean authorities imported wiretapping equipment in May as well, installing it in base stations in Pyongyang and the capitals of each province and special city. 

The equipment was reportedly acquired to monitor the conversations of users of North Korea’s mobile communication networks Koryolink and Kang Song NET.

The Ministry of State Security is using the equipment to monitor not only illegal political activity – such as criticism of the government or illegal border crossings – but also economic activity such as smuggling and foreign currency transactions. 

Meanwhile, connections between smugglers and customs officers have weakened in the wake of a mass shakeup of customs officers that followed a recent inspection of the Sinuiju customs office.

This means that while one could engage in smuggling after paying customs officers a standard bribe in the past, this may no longer be the case.

“You can’t smuggle, and you can’t even get on a boat,” said the source. “Since all the customs people got changed, you can’t pay a bribe to sneak into China.”

He further noted that with the government’s move to cut off all communication with China, some people are complaining, “Has the leadership decided to bleed Sinuiju dry?”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Jang Seul Gi is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.