North Korea has been in the news for many years for reasons that are far from positive. The country has remained in the spotlight due to the approach of the government toward international relations under Kim Jung Un’s rule.
Several issues such as the crisis between North and South Korea, the nuclear program and testing, and a gross violation of human rights and freedoms, have all been in the forefront of the country’s reputation.
There are necessities that are being enjoyed by the rest of the world, for example, public access to communication in North Korea, which are extremely monitored by the government. Another instance, as far as North Korea telecommunications is concerned, is in regards to the fact that international phone calls are illegal in North Korea. There is also a very strict regulation of any usage of technology in North Korea.
Why Are International Phone Calls Illegal In North Korea ?
The North Korean government holds the use of communication technology in the country with a very tight grip, especially to countries that are referred to as “enemies.” This was revealed in a report by Amnesty International.
North Korea has a popular mobile phone service which serves more than 3 million subscribers. But international phone calls are not permitted on this network as it is restricted to only local calls.
Only a select few citizens and foreigners are allowed access to the internet. However, some North Koreans have access to a closed-off network which can connect to only domestic websites and email services that are also closely monitored by the government.
Ordinary North Koreans are not allowed to use mobile phones to call members of their families who have defected as they risk being sent to detention camps or political prisons.
“Nothing can ever justify people being thrown in detention for trying to fulfill a basic human need – to connect with their family and friends” stated Arnold Fang, an East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.
The restrictions by the North Korean Government on international phone calls as well as information coming from outside reveals the intimidation and oppression of the North Korean populace since Kim Jung Un became the leader in 2011.
Arnold Fang also states, “To maintain their absolute and systematic control, the North Korean authorities are striking back against people using mobile phones to contact family abroad.”
Several reports have affirmed that the North Korean government sees the absolute control of communication in the country as a weapon by which they can suppress the voices of the people. Their stance on international calls and communication technology is in a bid to obscure the realities and information about the extent of human rights violations in the country.
Most people who have fled the country often live in a constant state of fear due to not knowing the situation of their families. The inability to contact their loved ones leaves both parties in the dark about whether they are alive or dead, imprisoned or being investigated.
How Do North Koreans Communicate With The Outside World?
Many North Koreans have relied on the booming private economy to gain access to smuggled clothing, food, and other goods from China. Along with this trend includes the smuggling of mobile phones and SIM cards. This practice is however not without great risks.
In a 2016 report by the New York Times, it was revealed that North Koreans have had to rely on smuggled-in mobile phones from China in order to connect to the rest of the world. People who live near the border with China are at an advantage as they can easily take advantage of some of China’s mobile networks to make international phone calls. For people in other areas, however, the ability to communicate with the outside world is much less easily done.
Government Crackdown on Illegal China Phones
Making calls at the border has become increasingly difficult to take advantage of as Kim Jung Un ordered that there be more measures put in place to prevent the exchange of information between North Korea and the outside world. This major government move has also cut down the number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea from 2,914 in 2009 to about 1,276 last year (Source: New York Times).
The North Korean government strengthened the crackdown on mobile phones that are being smuggled in from China with measures such as deploying surveillance devices and more soldiers along the border. High tech devices that jam communication signals have been deployed and used to trace calls back to those who used the banned mobile phones. The level of risk involved is massive, and North Korea has no issue going to the most drastic measures possible to halt the ability of their nation to communicate with those beyond their country’s borders.
Arrests and Incarceration
There is always a high price to pay whenever someone gets caught making illegal international phone calls in North Korea using smuggled Chinese mobile phones. Those who get caught are often sent to reform facilities and prison camps. In some cases, they are made to pay a certain fee as a bribe, if they have connections to influential people. According to several interviews by amnesty international, it appears that bribery is the motive behind many arrests.
Being sent to a reform facility is usually seen as a better scenario as this means a person would spend only about a year or two. Many people have been released with the assistance of bribing. Political prison camps are seen as much worse cases because they carry a longer, harsher sentence.
For those willing to take the risk, creativity and ingenuity are used. Many North Koreans who have a need to make international phone calls often come up with methods to avoid detection. When making international phone calls, they make use of pseudonyms and kept their conversations very short. Sometimes they climb up remote mountains to prevent their calls from being jammed or from being spotted while making illegal international phone calls.
The High Price of Communication
The imminent desperation and need for communication with the outside world has given rise to middlemen who offer the service to those who do not own a Chinese mobile phone. These middlemen get paid to set up phone calls so that the communication can be executed. This style of broker system is also used by defectors to send money to their families in North Korea.
Generally, the cost for this service can be quite high. The middlemen can take up to 30% of every USD1000 cash transfer as commission. However, the downside is that there are no guarantees that the money will reach the recipients. This is due to the fact that security agents are always on a mission to intercept money transfers, whenever possible.
There are also cases where family members send Chinese mobile phones, SIM cards, and money by bribing border patrol agents. With an increasingly tightened border, the bribes also tend to increase in value, reaching as high as USD500 per instance.
Despite the difficulties and dangers involved, communication comes at a high price for North Koreans with the ability and need to gain access to it.