North Korean state wiretapping citizens at will

Surveillance cameras installed on border guard posts in the Musan area of North Hamgyong Province. Image: Daily NK

As the North Korean authorities continue to crack down on the flow of domestic information across the country’s borders, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) is listening in on and monitoring domestic calls in certain areas.

“North Korean mobile phones didn’t connect to the network for three days from February 18 near the border region in Kimjongsuk County and Pochon County,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on February 22. “Most people in those areas had to go to areas away from the border to make calls.”

“A postal service employee told those asking why the phones didn’t work that the MSS permitted only one phone call per 100 families every three days,” said the source. “The official even said that the MSS was listening in on everyone’s phone calls, so they should watch out.”

It is not possible for the MSS to listen in on every call made by North Korea’s citizens, so the ministry may instead be attempting to listen in on calls representing 100 families at a time.

According to a source in North Hamgyong Province, halting network signals is not a difficult decision for the North Korean authorities to make. The authorities can hand down such an order to resolve equipment and human resource deficiency issues if an entire region needs to be placed under surveillance.

“If the Supreme Leader (Kim Jong Un) orders it, the MSS will block all every last one of us [North Koreans] from making calls – regardless of the trouble that would bring – to ensure its own surveillance operations go smoothly,” he said.

That the MSS listens in on home telephone (wired) calls is not surprising. Defectors say that the authorities even mobilize “non-experts” when there’s a need to listen in on many calls.

“To better watch what the people were saying and doing, the authorities blocked calls frequently during periods of tension, like US-North Korean summits or elections,” one former high-ranking defector told Daily NK. “The MSS would then commence with targeted surveillance of a person or persons if they got caught saying something odd.”

The MSS is likely beefing up its surveillance of phone calls due to the upcoming political events occurring from late February to early March, and are aiming to prevent domestic sentiment related to these events from seeping out to the international community.

The second US-DPRK summit will occur from February 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam and the Supreme People’s Assembly elections will be held on March 10. The North Korean authorities likely believe that the world media will pay a lot of attention to what is happening in North Korea and the measures taken by the government.

North Koreans also believe that the authorities are cracking down because of the summit.

“People were wondering what happened when the phones didn’t work, but when they heard the US-DPRK summit was going to be held, they knew that the authorities were just trying to prevent information from leaking,” said a separate source in Ryanggang Province.

“People are saying that it’s best not to talk by phone about business and to just use them to check up on family.”