North Korea’s government has ordered the country’s overseas diplomats and workers not to access the internet through their smartphones, warning that anyone found doing so will be forced to return home to face “severe” punishment, according to sources.
Sources from Vladivostok, Russia, where between 2,000 and 3,000 North Koreans work largely in the construction industry earning currency for the Kim Jong Un regime, said local handlers have begun conducting random inspections of phones to determine whether anyone had shirked the ban.
“North Korea has commanded overseas workers who work at diplomatic missions in the foreign country to prohibit internet access through smartphones,” said one source, who spoke to RFA’s Korean Service Sunday on condition of anonymity.
“North Korea warned the overseas workers that they would not avoid compulsory summonses and punishment if the command is violated.”
According to the source, the directive is part of a bid by the Kim regime to rein in North Koreans abroad and prevent them from hearing news about their country and the rest of the world from sources outside of official media.
“Pyongyang’s order is that overseas workers and also North Korean overseas diplomats’ internet access should be completely blocked,” the source said.
“After the order was given, random inspections of overseas workers’ smartphones began.”
When North Korean diplomats or workers are dispatched to foreign countries, “the first thing they do is purchase smartphones,” the source said.
“Although smartphones are expensive to buy, they are popular because they can be used to easily obtain the latest news and information about what is going on around the world,” he said.
North Koreans abroad must not access the internet or “share information if you hear the news,” the source said, citing the new directive.
“If you share the news with others, you will be summoned forcefully and will receive severe punishment,” he said.
News of murder
A second source, also from Vladivostok, on Monday confirmed that Pyongyang had ordered the ban on internet access.
“Local diplomats gathered the workers who were scattered around the region and delivered the command,” said the source, who also asked not to be named.
The source said the ban was likely ordered in response to the rapid spread of news within North Korea about the assassination of Kim’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia last month.
But he suggested that it would be extremely hard to enforce among North Korean workers, who count internet access and other relative freedoms among the greatest benefits of an overseas posting. Most North Koreans abroad work long hours in difficult conditions, and most of the money they earn is confiscated by their handlers and sent home to help fund the Kim regime.
“Although Pyongyang is threatening the workers with punishment … it will be hard to control them, as they are already used to frequent and unfettered internet access,” the source said.
The top three positions in North Korean companies operating overseas are president, party secretary and state security agent, according to the source, and they are referred to as No. 1, 2 and 3, respectively.
“The instruction for ‘No. 3’ is to randomly inspect the smartphone usage of overseas workers,” he said.
“Violators [of the internet ban] will be forcibly summoned and punished for life.”
Last week, sources told RFA that North Koreans working in China are being banned from watching foreign television shows, with their sets fixed to receive only satellite broadcasting from official sources in Pyongyang.
Due to the restrictions, many know nothing about the murder of Kim Jong Nam—a purported advocate for political reforms in North Korea and open critic of the regime who died Feb. 13 after being attacked with a chemical spray as he prepared to board a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Macau, in China.
In a bid to prevent news of the killing from reaching North Korean citizens, restrictions appear also to have been imposed on the movements of North Korean traders hoping to travel into China on business or to return to North Korea, the sources said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.