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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
WILL FOCUS ON FUNDRAISING
Katie Walsh Leaving White House for Political Role
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Trump's deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh is leaving her current position to work with political groups whose help the White House is seeking as it plows ahead with an ambitious agenda, two sources familiar with the move told the Washington Examiner." On the one hand, Walsh is said to be a master fundraiser. On the other, she's butted heads with many of her colleagues in the White House.

Source:
MODELED ON “GANG OF 14” DEAL
McCain Aims to Deal with Dems on Gorsuch
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Sen. John McCain is looking to strike a deal with Senate Democrats that would confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, while preserving the right of the minority party to filibuster some nominations. McCain is trying to reprise the "Gang of 14" deal, which temporarily preserved the 60-vote threshold for lower-court nominees. This time around, "a deal would require eight Democrats to vote to advance the nomination in return for a promise that in the future they would be able to block a nominee in extraordinary circumstances." But McCain admitted he's not optimistic.

Source:
WOULD LET STATES DENY FUNDING
Pence Breaks Tie on Planned Parenthood Vote
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The GOP held open for more than an hour a vote on a measure that would "allow states to block federal family-planning funds to Planned Parenthood." Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is recovering from back surgery, was summoned to the floor to make the vote 50-50, after which Vice President Pence broke the tie in favor of the measure. Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were the lone Republicans to vote against it.

Source:
CONTRADICTS PRESIDENT
Ryan: I Won’t Work with Dems on Healthcare
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in an interview to be broadcast early Thursday said he does not want to work with Democrats on healthcare legislation, breaking with President Trump's recent comments."

Source:
WILL HE TRY TO PRIMARY THEM?
Trump Puts the Freedom Caucus in His Crosshairs
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login