North Koreans turn to WeChat for videos and cross-border communication

Military guard post in North Pyongan Province along the Amnok River
Military guard post in North Pyongan Province along the Amnok River. Image: Daily NK

In North Korea’s border areas, the WeChat app is gaining popularity through word-of-mouth as a way to avoid surveillance from the North Korean authorities.

“In the border region, North Korean residents are increasingly turning to WeChat instead of phone calls to contact China and South Korea. People are using Chinese SIM cards in their cell phones and installing WeChat because the crackdown on phone communication is becoming too repressive,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

“Older people don’t really know about WeChat because they normally use older cell phones. Young people are quick learners and they’re the main ones using it.”

Young North Koreans are using WeChat’s voice chat and messaging service to avoid the government eavesdropping on their conversations and monitoring their messages. WeChat is known to have weaker security as it’s subject to real-time monitoring by the Chinese authorities, but North Koreans view it as relatively secure from the prying eyes of the North Korean authorities.

North Koreans are also using the app to watch foreign media. “People who are good with cell phones think that WeChat is more secure and easier to use compared to USBs and SD cards. They’re mostly watching short funny videos rather than longer movies,” said the source.

She added that it’s easier to delete media files on WeChat, reducing the likelihood of getting caught. However, due to the 100 MB limit on sending files, most of the videos are shorter.

The North Korean authorities are aware of the fact that people are using WeChat to talk to the outside world and watch videos, and are cracking down.

“The authorities feel threatened by the broad influx of outside news and are cracking down on cell phone usage and WeChat harder than before,” she said, further explaining that “signal monitoring” units are cracking down on people using smartphones and messengers, resulting in a spate of arrests.

“One resident was caught in early July because he did not delete a foreign video he received from a Chinese person via WeChat. Other residents speculate that he will receive heavy punishment,” she said.

Of particular note, some individuals engaging in trade under the regime’s protection are also subject to the crackdown.

“North Korean traders mainly use WeChat to communicate with Chinese traders. However, if they get caught, they are also punished without exception. The authorities go over every single text message and when they discover even a small problem, you cannot get away even if you pay a bribe,” an additional source in North Pyongan Province added.

“Therefore, traders delete messages, pictures, and videos immediately and leave no trace. “There are even traders and residents who delete WeChat during the day but reinstall it at night when it’s more convenient to use.”

Daily NK recently reported that the North Korean authorities are installing monitoring equipment and electronic jamming devices to prevent internal information from being leaked to the outside world.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee

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