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Illustration by Greg Ruben / Axios

Three million North Koreans now use the intra-country cell phone network called Koryolink. That may sound like progress, but that cell phone network is just "giving the North Korean government more control," according to a U.S. government-funded report from InterMedia, which assembled its findings based on responses from 34 North Korean defectors.

Why it matters: North Korea is trying to create "the appearance of development and modernization," but it's really seeking new ways to control its populace's media consumption. North Korea's surveillance state now goes "beyond what is observed even in other authoritarian states or closed media environments," the report said, and citizens are subject to monitoring from more than eight ministries and organizations.

  • "TraceViewer," created in 2013 and installed by default on North Korean phones, takes periodic screenshots of browser history and bulk exports the screenshots to inserted memory cards, making it nearly impossible to hide non-state media.
  • With expanded cellphone use, the government now doesn't have to rely on just human raids to gather information; it can monitor cell networks. Plus, jailbreaking North Korean phones is almost impossible, and North Korea doesn't have to rely on ISPs to spy on people in the country's network (as most other countries do), since the service provider is run by the state.
  • Officials use jammers along the Chinese border to prevent North Koreans from using Chinese cellphone signals.

Aside from cell phone monitoring, North Korea's Red Star Operating System seeks out undesirable phrases or sentences in documents and deletes them, reboots computers if users try adding firewalls, and watermarks documents to track their circulation to clamp down on non-state media.

In response, North Koreans are starting to use thumb drives more since they can hold more content and are easier to share or hide during raids than DVDs. And North Koreans keep two televisions: one runs the state channel and is displayed while the other is hidden and used to watch illegal media.

Go deeper

13 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 15 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.