Apr 2, 2017

The price of a North Korean cell phone

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

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 65,691 — Total deaths: 30,438 — Total recoveries: 139,263.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 119,748 — Total deaths: 1,991 — Total recoveries: 921.
  3. Federal government latest: President Trump is considering a quarantine on New York, parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. He signed a $2 trillion stimulus bill to give businesses and U.S. workers financial relief.
  4. State updates: Alaska is latest state to issue a stay-at-home order — New York is trying to nearly triple its hospital capacity in less than a month and has moved its presidential primary to June 23. Some Midwestern swing voters that supported Trump's handling of the virus less than two weeks ago are now balking at his call for the U.S. to be "opened up" by Easter.
  5. World updates: In Spain, over 1,400 people were confirmed dead between Thursday to Saturday.
  6. 🚀 Space updates: OneWeb filed for bankruptcy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  7. Hollywood: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have returned to U.S. after being treated for coronavirus.
  8. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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