North Korea cracks down on printers to stop anti-state publishing

Confiscating printers ruins small businesses and livelihoods, sources say.
Chang Gyu Ahn
2021.11.10
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North Korea cracks down on printers to stop anti-state publishing This file photo shows flyers criticizing the transfer of power to a third-generation in North Korea's Kim Dynasty, sent along with U.S. dollars, USB sticks and other items by the Free North Korea Movement Coalition, a South Korea-based group made up of escaped North Koreans.
Yonhap News

North Korea is cracking down on the use of unauthorized printers to prevent citizens from publishing anti-state materials, but sources told RFA that confiscation of the high-cost printing machines is ruining small businesses.

North Korea permits only state-controlled media and severely limits access to the internet, but to control the potential distribution of underground print media, authorities force all printer owners to register the equipment with the government.

“Printers are especially regulated by the government and are often randomly inspected,” a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service.

“During this crackdown, members of the Publishing Guidance Bureau came out and checked the printers against the documents they printed,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Printers in photo studios and print shops are owned and operated by the people running those businesses, which are permitted because they provide an essential service to the public. But printer ownership comes with frequent inspections.

“The printers owned by the government institutions are black and white document printers, but in the photo studios, they can print high-quality color photos. These kinds of printers can print books, certificates, and other important documents, so they are inspected often,” the source said.

“But all printers that have not been registered or that have different serial numbers from their registration documents are confiscated,” said the source.

Registering a printer is a long and drawn-out process and getting approval to own one is very difficult, according to the source.

“Sometimes when printers break down, the owner will secretly purchase the same model and use it as if it was the one that broke. That seems why these inspections have started,” the source said.

“The photo studios that have lost their printers during this crackdown have nobody to complain to. They are not only out of U.S. $500 to $600, the confiscation means they cannot print photos for people and their livelihood is cut off.”

Printers these days are more regulated than computers are, another resident of North Hamgyong told RFA.

“Many companies and people will freely sell computers to anyone with the money to buy them, but they cannot do that with printers,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Printers are very strictly controlled. To buy one, you must apply for permission from the social security department, the state security department, and the publishing guidance bureau. After that, you must register the printer and obtain an operator’s license if you want to print anything,” the second source said.

Although there are many companies that import products from China and other countries, only the Ogasan Trading Corporation, a state-owned company that generates cash for the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, has the right to import and sell printers to the public, according to the second source.

“Use of computers and digital cameras continues to increase in North Korea, but there are few places where people can print documents and photos,” the second source said.

“Because of the fear that private printers can crank out any number of anti-party or anti-government publications, capitalist books, propaganda leaflets, and counterfeit money, printers are a pretty high-profile crackdown target.

RFA reported in September 2020 that North Korean authorities arrested a man who worked at a publishing company and used a digital printer make realistic-looking counterfeit bills.

The deteriorating economic situation over the course of the coronavirus pandemic resulted in many desperate North Koreans attempting the same crime.

RFA reported in July of this year that the country began a major crackdown on counterfeiters, labeling them as “traitors who are aligned with external enemies.” 

Examples of anti-regime writings produced inside North Korea are exceedingly rare, but in recent years, people who’ve escaped the North to settle in South Korea have used balloons to send leaflets critical of the regime across the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

The leaflet campaign angered North Korea and led to South Korea enacting a law banning the balloon launches.

Authorities are so serious about anti-governmental statements that after graffiti appeared on the wall of a marketplace, they tried to identify the culprit by forcing the whole county to submit handwriting samples, RFA reported in September 2020.

Translated by Claire Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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