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North Korea: 'Absolute control' of phone networks and internet a key weapon

North Koreans caught using mobile phones to contact loved ones who have fled abroad risk being sent to political prison camps or other detention facilities as the government tightens its stranglehold on people’s use of communication technology, Amnesty International reveals in a new report published today (Wednesday 9 March).

The 58-page report, Connection Denied: Restrictions on Mobile Phones and Outside Information in North Korea, documents the intensified controls, repression and intimidation of the population since Kim Jung-un came to power in 2011.

The report is published amid rising tensions over the country’s nuclear threats and sanctions imposed. It sheds new light on the population’s likely perception of events, which is strictly dictated by the authorities.

International calls are blocked for North Koreans using the country’s domestic mobile phone service, which has more than three million subscribers. Access to the internet is restricted to all but foreigners and a select few privileged citizens. Some North Koreans can access a closed-off computer network, which provides connection only to domestic websites and email.

Most people who flee North Korea have no means to contact their families back home, leaving both sides uncertain about whether their relatives are alive, being investigated, imprisoned or dead.

Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International, said:

“To maintain their absolute and systematic control, the North Korean authorities are striking back against people using mobile phones to contact family abroad.

“Kim Jong-un is being deceitful when he justifies such repression as necessary to stop what he calls ‘the virus of capitalism’. Nothing can ever justify people being thrown in detention for trying to fulfil a basic human need – to connect with their family and friends.

“The absolute control of communications is a key weapon in the authorities’ efforts to conceal details about the dire human rights situation in the country.”

‘Chinese mobile phones’ and punishment

Despite the risks, many people are taking advantage of North Korea’s booming informal private economy, which has seen traders smuggle food, clothing and other goods, especially from neighbouring China. There is a growing illicit trade in imported mobile phones and SIM cards, which are commonly called “Chinese mobile phones” irrespective of the brand, that enable North Koreans living near the border to access Chinese mobile networks and communicate directly with people outside the country.

Access to Chinese mobile phone networks provides a risky lifeline for people wanting to communicate with family members abroad, for those wanting to escape the country and traders wanting to earn a living. Anyone caught making an international call using a “Chinese mobile phone” risks being sent to a reform facility, or even a political prison camp.

So-kyung, a North Korean woman who now lives in Japan, told Amnesty: “In a bad case we would be sent to the political prison camp, where we would expect a long sentence. A lighter case, we would be sent to a reform facility and imprisonment would be for one to two years. Most people get out with a bribe though.”

Bureau 27

The report shows that Pyongyang has increased its technological capacity to control and repress people in an effort to block contact with the outside world in the digital age. This includes importing modern surveillance and detection devices, and using signal jammers near the Chinese border.

Eun-mi, a woman in her 40s who left North Korea in 2014, was once arrested for using a “Chinese mobile phone”. She told Amnesty: “Bureau 27 of the State Security Department has this monitoring device, and agents hold this antenna-shaped device in their hands with red lights blinking. They said it was a detection device. When the Bureau 27 agents came to arrest me they took off their coats and there were these electric cords strapped around their body.”

In addition to sophisticated modern technology, everyday person-to-person surveillance remains prevalent. Jong-hee, who left North Korea in 2014, said: “Everybody was monitoring everybody else. In neighbourhoods, and in workplaces, people were monitoring each other.”

Brokers and bribes

In an attempt to avoid detection when making calls abroad, people in North Korea typically keep conversations short, use pseudonyms, and go up to remote, mountainous areas. This reduces the chances of calls being jammed and of security agents spotting individuals using the phones.

The most common way for family members abroad to contact loved ones back in North Korea who do not own a “Chinese mobile phone” is to pay someone who owns such a phone —a broker—to set up a call. The broker system grew out of the need of North Koreans who had fled abroad to send money to family members who remained in North Korea, but also serves as a channel of communication, for a fee.

The costs are high. Brokers involved in setting up a call take up to 30% in commission on a minimum £700 cash transfer. And because North Korean state security agents try to intercept money being sent home, there is no guarantee the funds will ever reach the intended recipient.

New game: Connection Denied

Amnesty has produced a game ‘Connection Denied’ which offers players an interactive way to experience the challenges faced by North Koreans when they attempt to call outside the country. It then asks them to send a message calling on Kim Jong-un to allow North Koreans to make connections.

Amnesty is calling on the North Korean government to lift all unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression and allow unhindered flow of information between individuals in North Korea and the rest of the world.

In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found that the gravity, scale and nature of human rights violations in the country do “not have any parallel” in the modern world. This included the almost complete denial of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.

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