North Korea allows smartphones in ‘Orwellian’ move to monitor citizens and bolster power
Mobile phones are becoming commonplace in North Korea and are seen as status symbols.
But, access to the internet is limited and people are being employed by the regime to monitor people round the clock.
Director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future, Priscilla Moriuchi, said: “In an Orwellian sense, North Korea is innovating on surveillance.”
Nearly all North Korean phones, tablets, laptops and computers run on locally developed operating systems stocked with censorship and surveillance tools.
Mobile phones are becoming commonplace in North Korea and are seen as status symbols
Internet from the outside world is cut off, according to researchers and groups that work with defectors.
Computers either run a system called Red Star or a localised version of Microsoft Windows whereas smartphones and tablets run on localised versions of Android.
The operating systems direct users to curated intranet loaded with Kim Jong-un speeches and recipes to North Korean dishes.
Ms Moriuchi added that by mandating that certain technologies be installed on mobile devices, North Korea could be “establishing a playbook for other authoritarian regimes”.
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The Red Star system and the preloaded surveillance software allow Pyongyang to monitor behaviour, according to German researcher Florian Grunow.
Authorities can use the software to remotely delete files from a computer and can block users sharing files, according to Ms Grunow.
A tool called TraceViewer records app usage and intranet browsing history.
The software takes random screenshots which users can see but cannot delete.
Phone usage is monitored and smartphone users face random stops by police, who check their phones’ contents, according to defectors.
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North Korea’s intranet first became widely available in the early 2000s.
But, in 2004 a suspected assassination attempt on then-leader Kim Jong Il, allegedly triggered by a wireless handset, led to a five-year ban on mobile phones.
The regime began allowing the devices again in 2009.
Some experts attribute the concession to Pyongyang’s desire to endear the government to local citizens.
A researcher at Amnesty International, Arnold Fang said: “North Koreans aren’t completely oblivious to the outside world.
A tool called TraceViewer records app usage and intranet browsing history
“In order to keep people happy, the North Korean government needs to show they are living a life of quality that is comparable to neighbouring countries.”
Early devices allowed some defectors to smuggle TV dramas from South Korea or elsewhere, but newer devices with tighter monitoring have made it more difficult to get access to foreign media, according to defectors.
An extremely small number of the North Korean elite have access to the external internet, according to Ms Moriuchi.
They are mainly researchers, government officials and party members whose jobs require information from the outside world.
An extremely small number of North Korean elite have access to external internet
The elites gain access via a connection ultimately run by China Unicom, operational since 2010.
But, according to North Korea-focused blog 38 North, there is a second internet connection provided by a Russian state-owned company, TransTeleCom.
Pyongyang’s traditional tools of power, such as propaganda and ruling by terror, are beginning to diminish in effectiveness, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho said.
But some experts said they doubt smartphones and online activity will do anything but strengthen the regime.
Head of intelligence research at Cybereason, a cybersecurity firm, and a former U.S. Department of Defence analyst, Ross Rustici, said: “As long as North Koreans primarily consume the propaganda from the state, I don’t see it having a short-term destabilising effect.”