The North Korean authorities are doing their best to crack down on and restrict their overseas workers’ access to information, but Daily NK has received reports that some of the workers are using smartphones to access the internet and get around the crackdowns. Furthermore, some of these individuals are getting access to South Korean radio broadcasts through the internet.
Daily NK’s special coverage team met a source in Russia close to the issue who confirmed that some of the workers dispatched overseas are using their smartphones to access foreign media content and information. Seeing this, the North Korean authorities attempted to block the workers from accessing the smartphones, but these days there appears to be something approaching a tacit agreement, resulting in a more permissive environment regarding the use of smartphones.
“The usage of mobile phones at North Korean construction sites became banned around 2013. The State Security Department agents seized the worker’s phones and promised to return them, but people knew that was a lie. Many people continued to use [other] phones in secret,” he said.
“Those that wish to stay in touch really need a phone. There have even been times when workers left the site to do outside work and then lost their way. A phone comes in handy in times like that. Those with smartphones regularly use them to access information on the internet.”
When asked why workers go to such ends to acquire smartphones, the source said, “They have a real desire to get information about what is going on in North Korea.” The authorities sometimes inform the residents about events and developments, but the people understand that they are not being told the whole truth, and “that’s what motivates them to seek out information.”
Workers are particularly interested in news about North Korea, preferring it to news about the outside world. In fact, the number of laborers abroad who tune into and enjoy North Korea-facing radio broadcasts from South Korea has mushroomed.
“The information they find through their smartphone connects them to a new world. North Korean workers are especially interested in confirming the information they are presented with by the authorities in lectures. Smartphones give them an opportunity to fact check,” the source said.
Many of the workers pretend to trust the content they are presented with at lectures but harbor doubts. “The more information they access, the stronger their frustration becomes. It becomes easier for them to separate fact from fiction,” he noted.
Despite these advances, some factors are mitigating this trend. For example, one in five dispatched workers is an informant for the State Security Department (SSD). In addition, the SSD’s surveillance of the workers is quite thorough. Despite these risks and constraints, workers are starting to learn which of their coworkers also access the radio broadcasts and South Korean news sites.
“The co-workers will be engaged in conversation when all of a sudden, one of them will mention or word or phrase that the other recognizes from the broadcasts,” the source said. “At that point, they are a bit worried about being reported on, but also relieved to have met someone that they can sympathize with.”
There are also reports of the SSD agents themselves accessing information through the smartphones, despite being tasked with cracking down on and preventing the workers from engaging in the same exact behavior. This is another obstacle that has made it difficult for the authorities to stamp out smartphone usage.
The special coverage team met a source in China who added that North Korean cadres who leave the country try to find and purchase Samsung and LG smartphones, and the more senior the official, the more likely they are to seek out the phones. This applies equally to SSD personnel.
“These government officials have a much easier time connecting to the internet than ordinary people. They tend to seek and carefully analyze forecasts about the North Korean regime and system,” he asserted.
“Investigations/crackdowns on phone ownership can happen suddenly, so users need to be prepared to quickly stash the phones somewhere. But the authorities have a much lower chance of getting caught and tend to ‘shut their eyes’ to infractions committed by other cadres or agents.”
The source was at pains to underscore the importance accessing new content holds for North Koreans, noting, “People who were born outside of North Korea will have a tough time understanding just how precious this information is. Growing up in North Korea means very little access to news, so when it suddenly becomes available abroad, people get hooked on and curious about the smallest pieces of news. They are especially interested in learning about what is going on in the North.”
*This article has been brought to you with support from the Korea Press Foundation.