North Korean authorities are using a South Korean program that restores deleted files to crackdown on the entry, distribution, and consumption of information from the outside world, Daily NK has learned. 

Meeting with Daily NK on Tuesday, a North Korean defector who recently arrived in the South said that while in the North, he often saw authorities “inspecting computers and USBs using ‘ComBack.’”

He added: “With ComBack, you can restore deleted files, and the authorities have used it to crackdown on people [with illegal files].”

North Korea operates specialized teams to curb the illegal copying, sale and consumption of CDs or USBs containing foreign films. Group 109, a joint censorship team composed of personnel from the party, Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Social Security, was reportedly renamed Group 627 recently.

The “ComBack” program used to be a popular recovery program in South Korea. It appears an illegal copy of the program entered North Korea somehow. 

According to the defector, however, ComBack is not perfect. “Even if you recover the file using ComBack, it doesn’t work properly” and the agents have to “guess what’s on the file by looking at its name.”

In fact, just deleting a file on a Windows-based computer does not mean that the file’s data completely disappears. Only parts of the file containing information are erased and recovery programs like ComBack try to restore the file by finding whatever parts of it are salvageable.

Generally, however, the file’s data continues to degrade if the computer it was stored on continues to be used. This is because the file’s data gets overwritten by other files. As a result, it is very difficult for non-experts to perfectly restore files using simple recovery programs.

USBs are used by many North Koreans to watch foreign media content such as films and dramas. / Image: Daily NK

Accordingly, it appears North Korean agents cannot launch fully restored files to see what information they contain. Instead, they seem to be nabbing violators by “guessing” about the content of the files from their names.

The defector told Daily NK that many North Koreans know that the agents can “infer the content of the files from the file names,” so they are avoiding crackdowns “by changing the file names to the names of programs recently shown on Korean Central TV [KCTV].”

While agents are suspicious if they see files named after programs on KCTV, “they can’t do anything because they can’t check what was on the files,” he said.

“This has led to fewer crackdowns using ComBack recently. It seems a lack of personnel is also a factor [in the decrease in crackdowns] because there are so many foreign videos [to check],” he added. 

The defector’s comments suggests that North Korean authorities are focusing their crackdowns on “ongoing cases” rather than getting bogged down on “past cases” involving foreign information they cannot produce evidence for. 

Meanwhile, North Korea is doing all it can to stop North Koreans from watching foreign videos or reading published materials.

A recent presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly adopted a law against “reactionary ideology and culture.” The new law tightens controls on the entry and distribution of outside information such as news and foreign cultural materials, and further seeks to prevent internal information, including propaganda material glorifying the regime, from leaking outside the country’s borders. 

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to