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, local sources say.
The demand for Chinese-manufactured phones is growing in the sanctions-hit North because they are able to make both domestic and international calls, a source in North Hamgyong province, near the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Security agencies are cracking down on their use, but the number of calls made outside the country has skyrocketed, and the authorities have now reached the limit of their monitoring abilities,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Authorities have recently prohibited the use of cell phones within 300 meters (984 feet) of statues of North Korean leaders, as the users could be suspected of involvement of bombing incidents if these occur, the source said.
North Korean security agents are now hunting down cell-phone users in remote areas along the border with China where signals are not jammed, a second source in North Hamgyong said, adding that prohibited calls can be easily made from Chinese-manufactured phones using USIM chips.
“Chinese cell phones, which cost more than 3,000 yuan [U.S. $437] per device, can also be used for text messaging, so the Chinese service provider’s USIM chip is a hot-selling item [on the black market], and is quickly going out of stock,” the source said.
“The term ‘phone user’ was formerly used to describe professional brokers who were paid to arrange phone calls between North Korean residents and defectors who had left the country to settle in South Korea,” the source said.
“But the general public can now make these calls easily on their own, and so they are now called ‘phone users’ themselves,” he said.
North Korean residents often use the Chinese-made phones to call family members living outside the country to ask them for financial support, sources said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.