North Korea Targets Potential Illegal Cell Phone Users With Links to Defectors

2017-06-14
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North Korean girls use mobile phones in a park in Pyongyang in a file photo.
North Korean girls use mobile phones in a park in Pyongyang in a file photo.
AFP

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered authorities in the isolated, communist state to expand a crackdown on illegal cell phone use to cover citizens who have links to defectors in South Korea, sources familiar with the situation said.

In the past, authorities targeted only actual cell phone users and sent them to a political prison camp if they were found to have connections in South Korea, they said.

North Korea’s Ministry of State Security has now extended the crackdown to include cell phone users who might potentially use Chinese-made mobile phones to call defectors, they said.

Jiro Ishimaru, a North Korea expert representing the Osaka, Japan-based AsiaPress International, told RFA that the news agency’s source in the northern part of North Korean said authorities began enforcing a more extensive crackdown in May after Kim Jong Un decided to “root out Chinese-manufactured cell phone users” who have links to the country’s mortal enemy South Korea.

When the original crackdown on illegal cell phone use was rolled out in late 2000 after a dramatic increase in the number of mobile calls in the border areas, those who used the devices illegally were subject to investigation.

But now potential cell phone users are being investigated, and authorities are meting out harsher punishments for offenders, said Ishimaru, who edits Rimjingang, a publication that coves North Korean news.

The Ministry of State Security is specifically targeting North Koreans whose families include defectors, and who have had used Chinese cell phones in the past, he said.

Authorities are trying to force these individuals along with people who spend more than they earn to turn themselves in and blow the whistle on others for making illegal calls, he said.

Though the Ministry of State Security already has information on those who use Chinese cell phones illegally, state security agents and officers are now visiting every household to pressure people to inform on neighbors they suspect of using mobile phones, Ishimaru said.

He said the current crackdown on cell phone users is harsher than clampdowns in the past.

“According to a source, it is on a totally different level now,” Ishimaru said. “Though people have not made any phone calls, they are being visited by investigators to find out if they have family members who have defected to South Korea.”

“There are plenty of security agents who are conducting investigations,” he said. “It seems like they are intensifying the crackdown to include not only actual phone users, but also potential cell phone users. This means there are stricter regulations.”

‘No forgiveness’

The number of North Koreans caught illegally using cell phones is increasing as a result of the widened crackdown.

Ishimaru’s source said residents accused of illegally using cell phones are subject to intense scrutiny and sent to political prison camps if they are found to have any links to South Korea.

“There is a person who got caught for giving information about market prices to families in South Korea,” the AsiaPress’ source said. “It will be difficult to get him freed despite all his family’s efforts.”

“There is no forgiveness for the ones who have been in contact with anyone in South Korea, so once someone gets caught, it means the end for that person,” the source said.

Ishimaru noted that the crackdown includes many North Koreans who live near the Chinese border and use Chinese-made cell phones to call relatives in China, though they are not phoning South Korea.

This is because many of the family members of North Koreans who have defected to South Korea live near the Chinese border, he said.

“North Korea is cracking down on potential users among them and treating them like political criminals no matter what their phone conversation was about,” Ishimaru said.

“The purpose of North Korea’s crackdown is to find the ones who are leaking internal information to South Korea or other countries,” he said.

“Kim Jong Un considers people who make calls to China to be on ‘a South Korean mission’ and has issued direct orders to block ‘illegal phone use’ and to prevent ‘information leakages,’” Ishimaru said.

North Koreans’ use of cell phones to keep in touch with relatives living in South Korea has dramatically increased in recent years, with security agents scrambling and failing to control and shut down communications links, North Korean sources told RFA in May.

Those caught using an illegal cell phones to call their relatives in South Korea usually receive sentences of three to seven years in prison, according to a North Korean source who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity in November 2015.

The demand for Chinese-manufactured phones has grown in sanctions-hit North Korea because the devices can handle both domestic and international calls as well as send text messages, two sources in North Hamgyong province near the border with China told RFA in May.

North Korean security agents are hunting down cell-phone users in remote areas along the border with China where signals are not jammed, one of the sources said, adding that prohibited calls can be easily made from Chinese-manufactured phones using USIM chips which can access 3G networks.

Reported by Jung Min Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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