New ban on select cellphones in North Korea

Wednesday 28th September, 2016

Stricter inspections and wider detection of illegal phone calls are being enforced in North Korea.

Kim Jong Un looks at an Arirang smartphone in 2013./KCNA

Kim Jong Un looks at an Arirang smartphone in 2013./KCNA

Technology used to detect radio wave signals have been newly distributed around the border regions between North Korea and China, and reports of officials seen using portable detectors are becoming more frequent.

Reporting through phone, a source inside North Korea stated that, “the North Korean government is mounting an unusually severe crackdown on mobile phones. Specifically, older models known as 107-type cellphones, originally released nine years ago are being targeted, and people are being asked to hand them over to their neighbourhood chiefs or to the Party Committees of their offices. People have been warned that they will be accused of using the phones to contact South Korea directly, unless they hand them in. To be honest, much time has passed since 107-type cells were released, so there aren’t many of them left now, in any case.”

“Though, there is a similar cellphone that was released in 2007. What’s good about these phones is that a person can call China directly as long as they use a Chinese USIM. Also, this cellphone has an expandable memory of about 600 mp3 files, so people can listen to all the South Korean music they want,” he said.

2007 saw the release of many types of mobile phones in North Korea, including the conventional cells as well as folder-type phones, but most of them were cheap copies shipped from China. These ‘North Korean’ phones did not enable people to call outside of North Korea, with the exception of the 107 cell, as long as they had a Chinese USIM.

The North Korean government has resorted to searching the homes of its citizens for Chinese phones, checking the call logs and confiscating them. If there is any evidence that the phone has been used to contact someone in China, the usual result is a self-criticism session or a fine. However, if the phone is found to have received or dialled numbers beginning with ‘010’, a South Korean number, severe consequences await the owner at the State Security Department. Smugglers and families of defectors struggle most under the newly restrictive policy.

A Chinese USIM also has international call capabilities, which means that direct contact from North Korea to South Korea is possible. North Koreans used to hide deep in the mountains or in trenches designed for storing kimchi to use their Chinese phones – however, with 107-type cells, people can talk in the streets or in the markets without worrying about being suspected.

The North Korean government’s demands to turn these cellphones in may mean that higher-ups have only recently found out about the extent of its capabilities. However, an absolute ban on the phone will prove to be ineffective. There are no rewards offered for turning in a cellphone, and so far few have obeyed the state’s commands.

The source elaborated, “The intentions of the state are clear: it wants to stop North Koreans from getting into contact with people in China or South Korea, to prevent outside information penetrating the border. It also wants to prevent North Koreans from receiving financial help from outside. Subsequent rumours regarding the recent floods in Onsong say that thousands of North Koreans have been killed, which has ignited feelings of animosity towards the state. As usual, this is a policy crafted by the North Korean government led by Kim Jong Un in the hopes of limiting communication and movement among its people.”


Reporting by Kim, Ki-cheol.

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