North Korea is stepping up measures to counter the use of illegal cell phones operating on neighboring China’s telecommunications networks by deploying jamming and wiretapping equipment along their common border, according to sources inside the reclusive nation.
North Koreans regularly use Chinese cell phones to access telecom signals in border areas in order to make international calls and surf the Internet via their handsets.
Local phones are confined to the North’s closed network as Pyongyang prevents the spread of information from abroad.
Despite efforts by the regime to crack down on Chinese cell phones in the country, the number of users has continued to increase in recent years, a source from North Pyongan province near the border with China told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Authorities are now focusing on expanding the coverage and length of jamming operations to discourage North Koreans from accessing Chinese networks, he said, noting that signals have become significantly weaker.
“It is not easy, but Chinese cell phone users are able to make a phone call if they travel to rural areas [near the border],” the source said.
“Yet, if the jamming signals continue to spread, people soon won’t be able to use the phones anywhere along the border.”
The source said that as authorities have extended jamming operations to most cities along the border with China, residents can now only access a Chinese signal if they travel “around 20 kilometers (12 kilometers) away from downtown areas.”
Similar to how authorities have installed barbed wire in areas along the border to prevent people from escaping to China, barbed electric jamming fences have been erected in the same places to discourage residents from using illegal Chinese phones, he said.
According to another source from North Pyongan, authorities are also increasing their surveillance of cell phone conversations, listening for key words that might incriminate users.
The source said that cell phone users who make calls to second parties outside of North Korea have had to be particularly careful about their conversations, lest their line is tapped.
“Someone recently was severely punished for using an illegal Chinese cell phone because the line was tapped and their conversation was recorded,” he said.
Additionally, the source said, residents believe that using certain terminology during a cell phone conversation will automatically trip wiretapping equipment and put users at risk.
“There is a rumor circulating that if people mention specific words, like names or locations, while using illegal Chinese cell phones, a wiretap will automatically begin, so people are using jargon that the equipment cannot recognize,” he said.
According to the source, North Korean businessmen living in China have previously contacted people in the capital Pyongyang indirectly through illegal Chinese cell phones owned by acquaintances in the North’s border areas, but the practice is becoming both harder and riskier.
Cell phone usage
North Korea’s government maintains an iron grip on the flow of information in the country, where citizens are punished for accessing foreign radio and other media or for using smuggled cell phones that operate on Chinese networks across the border.
North Koreans are reportedly allowed to access only certain 3G services with their cell phones on the domestic network Koryolink, including SMS and MMS messaging and video calls, but not the Internet.
Owning a cell phone is still a luxury in North Korea, with a basic Chinese-made Huawei mobile phone sold by Koryolink costing about U.S. $150, a huge sum for most of the country’s 24 million people.
But use is growing fast, with some 2 million North Koreans subscribing to Koryolink since it was launched in 2008 as a joint venture with Egyptian company Orascom.
Last month, sources living in China’s Liaoning province told RFA that shops are springing up in Chinese cities bordering North Korea which specialize in cheap cell phones that operate on the Koryolink network.
But they said that despite the low cost of the phones, North Koreans are balking at purchasing them, citing extra costs associated with bribing border officials to get them back across the border and a complicated registration process.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.