North Korean authorities heighten control over residents before US-NK summit

A border guardpost located in the Sino-North Korea border region. Image: Daily NK file photo

The North Korean authorities are cracking down on the spread of outside information and internal unrest in light of the upcoming US-North Korea summit on June 12.

“The provincial Ministry of State Security (MSS) offices and local police have been ordered to strengthen control over the population,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on June 5. “They have been told to focus particularly on collecting information about the popular response to the upcoming summit.”

North Korea has recently been taking dramatic actions in its relations with South Korea, China and the US to jump start its own economic development. These actions include steps toward denuclearization through the shutdown of the Punggye-ri nuclear site, two inter-Korean summits, and a state visit to the US by Kim Yong Chol, one of the regime’s top officials.

North Korea is clearly making efforts to create an environment conducive to economic development. These efforts, however, may be difficult to comprehend by everyday North Koreans. The regime’s propaganda machine has long demonized the US as a “wolf in fox’s clothing” and has frequently referred to South Korea as a “puppet government.” The regime’s recent actions may seem at odds with such propaganda.

“The authorities have moved to block much of the information about the summit from getting to the North Korean population,” said the source, adding that “they’re really doing all they can.”

The source reported that the authorities are “taking a prudent approach because they are unsure whether the US-DPRK summit will end in success or failure,” and that “only when the summit ends and the regime can evaluate its position will the authorities be able to properly explain the regime’s official view to its population.”

The authorities are also actively clamping down on the widespread use of Chinese mobile phones. North Korean officials believe that the population may be able to find out information from the outside world that the regime does not want them to know.

Officials have reportedly been highly active in managing informants. “Security officials are meeting with those residents who they know have Chinese mobile phones and demanding that they report anyone who asks to borrow the phones,” said the source. “The officials promise to save their informants’ necks if anything happens.”

Would-be informants find it difficult to refuse the demands of security officials. Many such informants rely on smuggling to survive and mobile phones are critical for the conduct of business.

Security officials use the circumstances to create an atmosphere where no one trusts each other. Officials visiting the homes of informants or suspects create suspicion among their neighbors and an environment of distrust. Ultimately, many North Koreans end up abandoning the use of mobile phones to prevent visits by officials.

“There are cases where North Koreans rat each other out, and in one case a member of the Chosun [Korean] Women’s Alliance was taken to the local MSS headquarters and made to write a confession over the course of several days,” said a source based in North Hamgyong Province.

“Her husband bribed the security officials and she was released after two days, but her experience there was, in her own words, ‘a nightmare.’”

She also noted that North Koreans who know each other had at one time paid to borrow mobile phones from each other; now, however, everyone is more cautious. “They believe that just getting past this period of intense crackdowns is most important.”

Both sources reported that many North Koreans were, at first, excited by the inter-Korean summit and the prospect of a US-DPRK summit, but are now “keeping their mouths shut” to avoid becoming a target of MSS surveillance.