North Korea's Kim Jong-un is reportedly using phone and internet networks in the country to establish "absolute control" over the population. A new Amnesty International report indicated that North Koreans caught using mobile phones to contact loved ones who have fled the country are being sent to detention facilities.
The report, 'Connection Denied: Restrictions on Mobile Phones and Outside Information in North Korea', was published on Wednesday 9 March and documented how the North Korean government has been tightening controls on people's use of communication technology. It also revealed that international calls are blocked for North Koreans using the country's domestic mobile service, which currently has more than three million subscribers, while access to the internet is restricted for most except foreigners and select citizens.
Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International, said: "Kim Jong-un is being deceitful when he justifies such repression as necessary to stop what he calls 'the virus of capitalism'. Nothing can ever justify people being thrown in detention for trying to fulfil a basic human need – to connect with their family and friends."
Research conducted by Amnesty International revealed that North Koreans are forced to take a number of measures to avoid being detected when making calls abroad. To do this, they typically keep conversations short, use pseudonyms and go to remote, mountainous areas to make the calls. Others take advantage of North Korea's private economy, in which traders smuggle food, clothes and other goods from countries like China. Access to Chinese mobile networks, therefore, provide a way for North Koreans to communicate with family members abroad.
Fang said: "The absolute control of communications is a key weapon in the authorities' efforts to conceal details about the dire human rights situation in the country."
For those who are unable to own a Chinese mobile phone, they sometimes pay someone who owns a phone to set up a call for them. The "broker system" reportedly began from the need of North Koreans who had fled the country and had to send money to family members still in North Korea. It now also serves as a channel for communication if the brokers are paid a fee. However, even using Chinese mobile phones comes with a risk if they are caught.
So-kyung, a North Korean woman now living in Japan, told Amnesty about what would happen if someone was caught using a Chinese phone: "In a bad case we would be spent to the political prison camp, where we would expect a long sentence. A lighter case, we would be sent to a reform facility and imprisonment would be for one to two years. Most people get out with a bribe though."