A growing number of the rich and powerful in North Korea are registering their cellphones under a false name in an attempt to avoid surveillance of their activities by the authorities, according to sources inside the reclusive country.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime regularly spies on the phone conversations of high-ranking members of the ruling Workers’ Party, wealthy merchants and known criminals, the sources said.
To avoid scrutiny, many within the three groups of society register the handsets under the names of people who do not draw the attention of the authorities, a source from Jagang province, close to the Chinese border, told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Not only senior party members but also heads of police and security departments are using illegal mobile phones that are registered in the names of other people,” the source said, adding that he is also the owner of such a cellphone.
For most North Koreans, obtaining a cellphone is an arduous process fraught with bureaucracy and invasive background checks, according to a recently published study.
For higher prices, intermediaries commonly sell phones which they have registered under bogus names—mostly those of impoverished people from rural areas who provide their information in return for a small amount of rice or money, said the joint report by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Voice of America.
The Jagang source told RFA that there is a law targeting such practices under which those who exchange or lend their phones to others for use in illegal activities can face even the death sentence.
A minimum jail term for such “illegal” phone transactions is three years, the source said.
However, the source said that party officials and the wealthy regularly use these illegal phones in public.
Those in charge of enforcing the law also use such handsets, making it ineffective.
A source from Yanggang province told RFA “everyone knows” that party officials, the wealthy and criminals use illegal cellphones, and confirmed that they were skirting the law by purchasing phones from residents “who are not under scrutiny from law enforcement.”
According to the Yanggang source, North Koreans have also been testing the ability of the authorities to monitor their cellphone usage and, in some cases, feeding them false information.
“[Last week], a number of students from the medical college in Yanggang’s Hyesan city intentionally referred to the distribution of an opiate powder in a series of cellphone calls which were intercepted by the People's Security Department,” the source said.
“A SWAT team subsequently arrived and scoured their dorms” looking for the illegal drugs, he said, but discovered that the powder was simply potato starch.
The students angrily complained about the phone call surveillance being an invasion of their privacy, for which the SWAT team could provide no justification and promptly left.
Around 2 million of North Korea’s estimated 24 million people officially subscribe to Koryolink’s 3G network, according to Orascom, an Egyptian telecom company that jointly operates the mobile carrier with the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation.
Skeptics have questioned the accuracy of the claim saying that—after subtracting a standing army of 1 million soldiers who cannot own cellphones due to security reasons and at least 3 million children aged 10 years or younger—it would suggest one in 10 of North Korea’s mostly poverty-stricken citizens are mobile subscribers.
Reports also say that handsets which operate on Chinese networks across the border are regularly smuggled into the country, further complicating estimates of how many cellphone users there are in the North.
North Koreans are reportedly allowed to access only certain 3G services with their cellphones, including SMS and MMS messaging and video calls, but not the Internet.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Min Seon Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.