North Korean security authorities are charging anyone caught using the Chinese messaging app WeChat in the Sino-Korean border region as spies, regardless of why they were using the app.

According to a Daily NK source in Yanggang Province on Wednesday, the provincial branch of the Ministry of State Security received an order early this month to “root out every last user of Chinese-made mobile phones.” 

The order included instructions to “unconditionally” level espionage charges on suspects if they have installed WeChat on their phones. This suggests the authorities intend to thoroughly stop the use of WeChat, which they believe people have long used to communicate with the outside world.

The authorities are also ferreting out whoever the suspects have been chatting with. That is, security agents are running ops by using confiscated mobile phones to continue WeChat conversations.

In fact, a remittance “broker” in Hyesan — a woman in her 40s identified by her family name of Choe — was arrested on Dec. 3 as she attempted to hand money to a Ministry of State Security operative.

Merchant cell phone
In this undated file photo, a North Korean merchant is seen using a cell phone at a local market. / Image: Daily NK

Ministry agents then began sending messages to Choe’s WeChat contacts, posing as a remittance broker. As they exchanged messages, the agents hoped to confirm whether Choe just moved money or whether she also leaked domestic information overseas.

The source said they located the people who left text or voice messages that they received money and confiscated their cash. This means they are using a dragnet to sweep up accomplices.

In particular, they are reportedly confirming the identities of chat partners. In Hyesan, the city branch of the Ministry of State Security now has a list of dozens of defectors who reside in South Korea.

Thus, if you get busted for using a Chinese-made mobile phone with WeChat, both you and your connections will likely get hurt.

The source said the authorities have recently been employing more diverse means of ferreting out users of Chinese-made mobile phones and their accomplices. This has locals on edge, he said.

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