Border Control Subversion

North Koreans find leaks in Kim Jong-un’s information blockade

Until 2011, the erosion of North Korea’s border control and the infiltration of foreign ideas may have been the only hopeful trends in a country where just about all of the news is bad. When Kim Jong-un came to power, however, he launched an allout effort to seal North Korea’s leaky border with China. Most of the evidence tells us that that effort has had considerable success. It cut the flow of refugees from North to South Korea in half, and (with the help of cell phone locators, reportedly imported from Germany) made it extremely risky to make cross-border phone calls. Those calls were one of North Koreans’ few fragile links to the outside world.

Yet despite Kim Jong-un’s best efforts, the border isn’t completely sealed. After years of decline, the number of refugees arriving in the South is inching up again. North Koreans were still able to find out about the recent group defection of 13 restaurant workers from China — news that the state must have been very eager to suppress — using illegal cell phones.

NK News reports that some younger North Koreans are now sharing “multimedia files, with content often influenced distinctly from Japanese and South Korean culture,” over their government-controlled Koryolink phones. This is, of course, a risky proposition over a monitored network, but in time, marginally subversive content has the potential to overwhelm the state’s capacity to monitor and censor it. Here, I find myself agreeing with Andrei Lankov:

“The horizontal connections” provided by the growing cellphone network should be welcomed, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea watcher told NK News on Monday.

“The massive arrival of cellphones provide North Koreans with many opportunities to interact

with their peers, often living far away.

“It is new, since for generations North Korean society has been compartmentalized, with people having little communications outside their work unit and neighbourhood,” he added.

The greater danger to the regime, however, is that North Koreans have apparently found a way to evade both the regime’s cell phone detectors and the monitored state-run networks, by using hard-to-trace messenger apps like on their Chinese cell phones. 

North Korean users of foreign messenger applications such as Kakao Talk, Line, and WeChat will be arrested on the spot on suspicion of espionage, according to a new order handed down from the authorities. Sources inside the country interpret the move as Kim Jong Un’s aggressive reaction to the capability of Chinese cellphones to facilitate the import and export of information into the isolated country.

As recently reported by Daily NK, the North Korean authorities have ramped up efforts to label Chinese cellphone users as traitors and pursuing strict punishments against them. To this end, North Korean authorities doubled down on the use of signal detectors to trace illicit international calls and zero in on the location of foreign phone users.

However, the messenger apps allow users to circumvent detection by this equipment, prompting the regime to respond with new threats specifically targeting users of these communication applications. [Daily NK]

I’m not a technology expert, but I’d guess that’s because text messages transmit only a small amount of data in an instant — too little time for detection equipment to zero in on the location. The regime has responded by ordering the immediate arrest and harsh punishment of anyone caught using a messenger app.

“Offenders who are apprehended will be processed according to the discretion of the arresting agency– i.e. the State Security Department or the Ministry of People’s Security. Those taken in will be charged with espionage associating with the enemy and dispatched to a political prison camp.”  [….]

“These days, Line and Kakao Talk are explicitly mentioned in lectures [routinely delivered to residents by the authorities]. That’s how serious the crackdown has become,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province said.

The regime has been worried about Kakao Talk since 2014, which is also when I first read reports of its use to evade regime censorship. Jieun Baek has written about its evolution into a guerrilla banking system for North Koreans. By late 2015, North Korean refugees in the South were already using it to send messages and money to their families back home and set up clandestine hawaladars inside North Korea. Kakao Talk has also won a license from the South Korean authorities to operate as an online bank.

The obvious limitation of these apps is that Chinese cell phones have limited range — just a few miles inside North Korea. But if the signal range problem can be solved, messenger apps could give North Koreans the ability to spread news and make payments from city to city and province to province. I can foresee a dynamic under which these apps could play a significant role in shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Apps like these could help North Korea’s poor become richer and better fed, even as a heavily sanctioned regime’s security forces increasingly turn to corruption to feed their own families.

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