Illegal cell phones first arrived in North Korea a decade ago from defectors who sent them to loved ones. They’ve become a two-way window allowing those in and out of the reclusive state to glimpse life on the other side.
As many as 1,000 North Koreans use handsets that connect to Chinese networks to tell people in the South about subjects ranging from food shortages to leader Kim Jong-il’s health, said Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean who runs a Seoul-based radio station that broadcasts daily to the North.
Ha’s Open Radio for North Korea is one of several groups gathering information from people on phones that only work near the 1,400-kilometer border with China. The risks are absolute: One caller was executed, Ha’s employees heard, leading Open Radio to curb contact with informants.
“To us, it’s about breaking news,” said Ha, who receives U.S. congressional funding through the National Endowment for Democracy. “To them, it’s a matter of life and death.”
North Korea accuses the United States and South Korea of financing such organizations to conduct “a black propaganda campaign,” the Korean Central News Agency said last month. Kim’s government glorifies his achievements as “the great sun of the nation,” who repels “U.S. warmongers and South Korean puppet forces.”
Efforts to control the information flow may intensify as Kim, 68, prepares to hand over power, most likely to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Food scarcity, international sanctions and a shortage of foreign currency to buy basic necessities may threaten stability, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a March 15 report.
Ha predicts more executions as Kim rolls back an experiment with free markets that weakened his hammerlock on all aspects of life. With the trickle of consumer goods traders brought from China came illicit mobile phones that offered a peep into the reclusive nation and gave some North Koreans an alternative view of a southern neighbor demonized by Kim’s media barrage.
“Even short-lived reforms have provided many people a taste of how life could be, and now this is being taken away from them again,” said Rudiger Frank, professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the East Asian Institute of the University of Vienna. “This creates frustration, which in the long run is a necessary ingredient of a revolution.”
The man said to have been executed, in his 40s, was shot in public in January in Hamhung, the country’s second-biggest city, Open Radio said March 4, citing a police officer in the North it didn’t identify. The victim had a Chinese cell phone and had confessed to giving details on rice prices and living conditions to a South Korean defector, the report said.
Kim’s government makes “rampant” use of public executions, torture and collective punishment to instill fear, a United Nations report said in February.
Defection and disclosing “national secrets” are deemed treason under North Korea’s criminal code and are punishable by death, according to a copy posted on the website of South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Listening to “anti-state radio” is punishable by up to five years in a labor camp.
Radios are pre-tuned to government programs and owning computers without permission is forbidden, according to the Feb. 17 U.N. report. Security squads raid homes looking for contraband, it said.
While mobile phones are allowed in and around the capital of Pyongyang, their use is forbidden near the border, the United Nations said. Legal cell phones in North Korea, many operated by Cairo- based Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, can’t be used for international calls, a U.S. State Department human-rights report released in March said.
More than 10 North Korean informants for Open Radio use phones with pre-paid SIM cards bought in China that work as far as 10 kilometers across the border, Ha said. Pre-paid cards accounted for 82 percent of all users at Beijing-based China Mobile Ltd., that country’s biggest operator, in 2007.
Illegal phones started appearing as early as 2000, when defectors living in China and South Korea had them smuggled across the border to relatives, said Sohn Kwang-joo, chief editor at Seoul-based Daily N.K.
“Cell phones are the most powerful and surest way to change the North Korean regime,” said Sohn, whose newspaper was the first to report on North Korea’s bungled currency revaluation last year. “A regime change is inevitable and it may come a lot faster than we expect.”
The government in December knocked two zeros off the currency, wiping out savings derived from the black market. The move backfired when food prices soared, sparking sporadic protests, according to Daily N.K. and Open Radio. The government executed a senior official, Pak Nam-gi, in February for “intentionally harming the country’s economy,” South Korea’s Yonhap News agency said.
“What the regime is worried about is the North Korean people’s growing awareness that the South Korean people are not only richer but that they also do not want to live under Kim Jong-il,” said Brian Myers, professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. “You raise in the minds of the North Korean people: ‘Why don’t we just live under South Korean rule?’” (Bloomberg)