North Koreans Turn to Smartphones to Evade Censorship Checks

2015-03-06
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This undated picture released by the official Korean Central News Agency on August 11, 2013 shows the locally-produced 'Arirang' smartphone at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
This undated picture released by the official Korean Central News Agency on August 11, 2013 shows the locally-produced 'Arirang' smartphone at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS

A new censorship policy under which authorities are tracking the activities of cell phone users is prompting some North Koreans to ditch their handsets and buy secondhand, touch-style smartphones smuggled from China to access prohibited South Korean movies, North Korean sources said.

North Korean authorities began the “1080 Sangmu” censorship program in early February to find people who were using their cell phones to store and access South Korean music and movies.

Downloading and watching foreign movies, especially ones produced in South Korea, is a crime in North Korea, punishable by imprisonment.

“Now I can’t use my cell phone outside without worrying that if I take it out of my pocket, a 1080 Sangmu member might take it and look into the contents it holds,” said a source in North Hamgyong province, the country’s northernmost province which borders China.  

Authorities are cracking down on cell phones with memory chips that North Koreans refer to “Bbak,” a proper noun which is a rendering of the word “back.”  They are the chips on which music and movies are stored and sometimes accessed overtly in broad daylight, he said.

The source cited an example from June 2013, when some members of Pyongyang’s Unhasu Orchestra were dismissed from their positions and punished along with some actors, because they had exchanged adult videos from Japan using Bluetooth technology via their cell phones.

“There are many people who have suffered at the hands of thieves who access the contents of their cell phones [after stealing them] and now with the 1080 Sangmu” which randomly inspects and confiscates their phones, a source in northwestern North Korea’s Chagang province said.

Smartphones are an alternative

The crackdown has prompted some to cancel their cell phone registrations and buy smartphones instead,
sources said.

North Koreans, especially those who do business with the Chinese, are buying smartphones in local markets for about U.S. $300, they said.

Authorities in North Korea have the right to recall cell phones from users who cancel their registrations without paying the owners for recalling their phones, the source in North Hamgyong province said.

Touch-screen type smartphones are gaining popularity because they allow users to freely store movies and music on their memory chips and feature games, the source in Chagang province said, although the phones are not used for calling services.

Smugglers have noticed the growing demand for smartphones and been supplying used ones from China to North Koreans, he said.

“Now that the 1080 Sangmu has been organized to frequently monitor and censor cell phone use, the number of people who use the devices to make and receive calls will decrease,” he said.

“But other functions of touch-type cell phones are gaining popularity, which means the number of unregistered, illegal smartphones will increase,” the source said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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