Kim Jong Un Just Doubled His Country’s Cell Phone Use”“But Don’t Expect a ‘Korean Spring’

Tight controls and citizen fear mean cell phones are more a government tool than a revolution-inciting force.

This picture taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 12, 2012 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un giving the final order for the launch of the Unha-3 rocket, carrying the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3, at the general satellite control and command center in Pyongyang. North Korea's leader has ordered more satellite launches, state media said on December 14, 2012, two days after Pyongyang's long-range rocket launch triggered global outrage and UN condemnation. ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
March 7, 2014, midnight

Two mil­lion North Koreans now own cell phones.

While it’s prob­ably ob­vi­ous that they’re not us­ing them to check Face­book, they’re also not spread­ing new ideas or help­ing un­der­mine that coun­try’s to­tal­it­ari­an re­gime. In fact, the rap­id spread of tech­no­logy may be in­creas­ing Kim Jong Un’s strangle­hold over cit­izens’ lives.

Cen­sored con­tent, gov­ern­ment snoop­ing, and lim­ited ac­cess have made North Korean cell-phone own­ers un­able or afraid to use their phones for sub­vers­ive pur­poses. At the same time, the re­cent growth of mo­bile use has giv­en the gov­ern­ment an­oth­er ac­cess point to spread pro­pa­ganda and track po­ten­tial dis­sid­ents.

North Korea’s Kory­olink net­work hit 1 mil­lion sub­scribers in early 2012, then topped 2 mil­lion the fol­low­ing spring. While that still ac­counts for just a frac­tion of the coun­try’s 25 mil­lion cit­izens, the rap­id growth is un­deni­able. But don’t take it as a sig­nal that Kim Jong Un’s re­gime is soften­ing.

“There are no signs North Korea in­tro­duced cell phones as a means of re­form­ing or open­ing up to the out­side world,” journ­al­ist Yonho Kim said Thursday at a Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity event in Wash­ing­ton. The Voice of Amer­ica re­port­er presen­ted his re­port, based on in­ter­views with de­fect­ors, at the school’s U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute.

Ac­cord­ing to Kim, au­thor­it­ies mon­it­or all text mes­sages — along with loc­a­tion data — in real-time, while voice calls are re­cor­ded, tran­scribed, and stored for three years. One former North Korean se­cur­ity agent told him of­fi­cials refer to cell phones as “cow­bells” and re­fuse to carry them. “All the de­fect­ors I in­ter­viewed agreed users would nev­er say any­thing polit­ic­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate via cell phone, be­liev­ing every call is mon­itored,” Kim said.

North Korean cell phones, of course, don’t of­fer In­ter­net ac­cess. And the ba­sic 200-minute, 20-text plan that comes with a phone is so ex­pens­ive to “top off” that some people buy a second phone un­der a fake name just for the ex­tra minutes (Only the wealthy can af­ford a phone to be­gin with. Mo­bile devices can cost hun­dreds of times the av­er­age cit­izen’s monthly salary.)

Most people, however, own cell phones as a status sym­bol and use cam­era, video, and game func­tions more than ac­tu­al calls. “An in­creas­ing num­ber of cell-phone users in North Korea use their cell phone not as a com­mu­nic­a­tions device, but as a per­son­al­ized en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem,” said the U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute’s Al­ex­an­dre Man­sour­ov.

If out­side con­tent — such as a South Korean soap op­era — is found on a device, “an of­ficer can con­fis­cate a phone on the spot at his dis­cre­tion and users can be sent to labor con­cen­tra­tion cen­ters,” Kim said. And as cit­izens have learned about data trans­fer, the gov­ern­ment has is­sued new mod­els with few­er func­tions and forced cit­izens to re­turn their phones so they can dis­able fea­tures like Bluetooth.

Mean­while, the gov­ern­ment has found a con­veni­ent tool to spread its mes­sage. Cell phones of­fer ac­cess to the state news­pa­per (wheth­er that’s via an ap­plic­a­tion or MMS mes­sages is in dis­pute). The rul­ing party also sends near-daily group texts up­dat­ing users on Kim Jong Un’s do­ings.

Though Kory­olink cov­ers a small frac­tion of the coun­try’s land mass, it reaches 94 per­cent of its people. Ex­pand­ing ser­vice to North Korea’s rur­al, less-pop­u­lated areas would likely do little, ac­cord­ing to a Korea Eco­nom­ic In­sti­tute re­port earli­er this year. “In these re­mote areas where elec­tri­city is stored in car bat­ter­ies and used to heat wa­ter, keep­ing cell phones charged is not a pri­or­ity,” wrote Scott Thomas Bruce, an as­so­ci­ate at the East-West Cen­ter.

While cell-phone use is tightly con­trolled and mon­itored, In­ter­net ac­cess is far worse. Only the priv­ileged can use Kwangmy­ong, a state-run in­tranet that of­fers only ap­proved me­dia and closely watched chat and dis­cus­sion boards. As for the ac­tu­al In­ter­net, as few as a dozen “su­per-elite” North Korean fam­il­ies can ac­cess it with­in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to Bruce’s re­port.

Some uni­versity stu­dents and state of­fi­cials whose job it is to col­lect in­form­a­tion on the coun­try’s en­emies are also gran­ted In­ter­net ac­cess, again very lim­ited and closely mon­itored.

For all In­ter­net users, in­com­ing com­mu­nic­a­tions are tracked by the state. Of­fi­cials cen­sor all out­side email, re­spond­ing to un­cleared senders with a hand-typed “mes­sage not de­livered” no­tice.

Cell-phone dis­tri­bu­tion has also been used as a means of eco­nom­ic con­trol, ad­ded Man­sour­ov. Among the people who can af­ford them, the de­sire for phones and talk time has dis­placed pre­vi­ous clam­or for the gov­ern­ment to of­fer goods like re­fri­ger­at­ors. “By reg­u­lat­ing the amount of free minutes, the North Korean gov­ern­ment can ac­tu­ally reg­u­late the de­mand for oth­er con­sumer goods,” Man­sour­ov said.

In ad­di­tion, the pub­lic’s de­mand for cell phones has led people to spend for­eign cur­rency — much more valu­able than the North Korean won — to ob­tain them. The agency that is­sues phones has be­come one of the gov­ern­ment’s biggest col­lect­ors of for­eign money, no small feat in a cash-poor coun­try.

The North Korean cell phone surge isn’t all bad news. De­fect­ors in South Korea have been able to send money and con­tact their North Korean fam­il­ies through brokers. In­land North Koreans call brokers near the Chinese bor­der, who align the earpiece of one phone with the mi­cro­phone of an­oth­er il­leg­al phone that is get­ting a sig­nal from a Chinese net­work, al­low­ing out­side com­mu­nic­a­tion.

In some cases, SD and SIM cards have been used to share data out­side of the gov­ern­ment’s eye. And in the fu­ture, said Man­sour­ov, cit­izens may reach a “sat­ur­a­tion point” with gov­ern­ment-provided con­tent and be­gin to de­mand more ac­cess. For now, though, it’s not likely the tech­no­logy will fo­ment a re­volu­tion.

“North Korea is a place where op­tim­ist­ic dreams of tech­no­logy-driv­en lib­er­al­ism go to die,” said Bruce.

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