Authorities in North Korea have been shutting down telecommunication towers in the country’s northern border areas and using equipment that can locate cell phone signals in a bid to flush out users of illegal mobile phones from China, according to residents of the reclusive nation.
Sources in areas of North Korea close to the border with China told RFA’s Korean Service that since last month, authorities began temporarily shutting down local cell phone towers to uncover those using illegal Chinese handsets, which operate on towers located in China.
“From early November, cellular base stations along the [Chinese] border have been stopped very often,” a source in North Hamgyong province, which neighbors northeastern China’s Jilin province, told RFA on condition of anonymity.
“So I cannot use my cell phone, even though it is a domestic one,” said the source, who is among North Koreans using “legal” phones that require signals from the local telecom towers to function.
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.
The source said that authorities decided to close down the telecom towers temporarily after the tracking equipment they used had failed to detect the illegal cell phone users.
The equipment could only pinpoint the location of a cell phone that has been receiving signals, but not the source of the signals.
Due to the uncertainty, the authorities had mistakenly raided a number of homes recently where legal phones had been used, as they were unable to determine whether the cell phone signals were originating from China or North Korea.
He said authorities then decided to shut down the towers without any warning as only illegal phones from China could still receive signals while the North Korean towers were not operating.
A source in Yanggang province, which also neighbors Jilin in China, confirmed to RFA that authorities along the border had recently stepped up efforts to detect illegal cell phones.
“Agents of North Korea’s state security department go around by bicycle with cell phone detectors,” the source said.
“It is hard to make calls in secret because of the intensified crackdown on illegal cell phones.”
The source said that in Yanggang’s capital Hyesan, which has an urban population of around 150,000 people, at least three different buildings—including the Hyesan Maternity Hospital— have been outfitted with German cell phone detectors.
Security agents with mobile cell phone detectors are also stationed in almost every village office, he said.
However, sources told RFA that despite the increased monitoring, authorities had not had much success in locating illegal cell phones, as owners have largely stopped using them amid the campaign.
“People who have illegal cell phones use them seldom, if at all, due to fear of the crackdown,” one source said.
In July, sources told RFA that authorities had increased 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.
But they said that 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.
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 a reported 2.4 million North Koreans subscribing to Koryolink as of June since it was launched in 2008 as a joint venture with Egyptian company Orascom.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.