Cellular Technology, The Internet, And North Korea | International Politics | North Korea

UNCLASSIFIED Cellular Technology, the Internet, and North Korea Steve S. Sin and Timon A.

Nelson Introduction: Obtaining current or recent information from within North Korea is an enormous challenge for the US and its allies in the region. Cellular technology and the Internet, however, have brought about new opportunities to gain access to the reclusive North. The report about North Korea’s devaluation of its currency was first reported by a Seoul-based Internet news service called the Daily NK on November 30, 2009. This report, which made headlines around the world and was later confirmed by the South Korean government officials, had far-reaching implications. The Daily NK is one of six news outlets that have emerged in recent years specializing in collecting information from North Korea. All of these outlets have North Korean defectors as their employees and all reportedly cultivate sources inside North Korea, a country with near-total media blackout. (Choe, 2010) The information provided in the reports of these “cottage-industry” outlets are sketchy at best. They cover small pockets of the North Korean society, largely remain unconfirmed, and many are proven wrong. However, they have also produced important tips and clues – such as the currency devaluation and a recent outbreak of H1N1 flu in North Korea. Today, the traditional media outlets of South Korea regularly quote these atypical news services. (Choe, 2010) Cellular Phones – Number One Enabler: Cellular phones have been the technology most used to get information to the outside world from within North Korea. (Yonhap News Agency, 2010) It has only been some 10 years since North Korean residents began speaking to those in China or South Korea via cellular phones. Initially, these phones were smuggled into the North by Chinese smugglers as a communication method with their North Korean contacts to conduct their operations. (Joo, 2010) Today, these Chinese-originated cellular phones serve as the link between approximately 18,000 North Korean defectors residing in South Korea and their families left behind in the North, as well as the line of communication for those seeking and providing information about North Korea to the media outlets such as the Daily NK or nongovernmental organizations (NGO) such as the North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity (NK Intellectuals Solidarity). (Choe, 2010; Hwang & Son, 2010; Joo, 2010) Due to the limitations of the cell tower ranges located along the Sino-North Korean border and the North Korean terrain, cell phone signals from China cannot penetrate deep into North 1 UNCLASSIFIED

UNCLASSIFIED Korean territory. However, cellular phone signals from China can penetrate one to four kilometers into North Korea along the most areas of the Sino-North Korean border and for tens of kilometers near the flat area of Sinuiju, forming a thin communication zone along the border region. (Joo, 2010)

The NK Intellectuals Solidarity, a Seoul-based North Korean defectors’ organization of approximately 150 North Korean scholars, doctors, engineers, and other elites launched on 2 UNCLASSIFIED

UNCLASSIFIED October 24, 2008. (Kim, 2008) It not only receives information from North Korea on predetermined topics of interest, but it also tasks their sources to answer specific information requirements using cellular phones. In a January 30, 2010, interview with OhmyNews, a South Korean Internet news service, the spokesperson of the NK Intellectuals Solidarity stated the organization has seven to eight lines into North Korea including one smart phone capable of transmitting photographs. The lines are distributed among on the four provinces near the Sino-North Korean border and one other province not mentioned by name for a total of five provinces. The NK Intellectuals Solidarity spokesman also said his organization receives daily phone calls with two to three reports from its sources in the North with information on market activities and daily living (food, clothing, and residence) situations for the residents in the area – they ordinarily report on information any North Korean residents would have knowledge of. As for the placement of access to information, the NK Intellectuals Solidarity spokesman said his organization is “connected to the regional city and county party officials.” (Hwang & Son, 2010) The phones currently used by the sources working for the NK Intellectuals Solidarity are South Korean phones on roam smuggled into North Korea, and the NK Intellectuals Solidarity pays the monthly phone bills. (Hwang & Son, 2010) The Daily NK apparently uses a similar network of sources for their information from the North and their sources do not know they are providing information to a media outlet. The Daily NK’s sources ordinarily call their contacts in South Korea once a week at a designated time, but if there is an important development, the sources do make unscheduled contacts with their contacts in the South. 3 UNCLASSIFIED

UNCLASSIFIED (Choe, 2010) Apparently, the sources working for the NK Intellectuals Solidarity and the Daily NK are providing information about North Korea in hopes that their works will contribute to the social reform and opening of North Korean society, and are paid a modest amount of payment for their services. (Choe, 2010; Hwang & Son, 2010) The Daily NK sources are reportedly paid 1,000 Chinese renminbi, or about 150 USD, every two to three months. (Choe, 2010) The North Korean government understands the potential dangers these sources pose to the regime and it is fully aware of the methods a North Korean resident can use to contact someone in South Korea. To combat the use of cellular phones along its border region, North Korea apparently purchased an undisclosed number of signals intercept vehicles from Germany a few years ago and deployed them along its Sino-North Korean border. The penalty for using unauthorized cellular phones is severe. (Joo, 2010) In the past, there have been cases where North Korean residents were executed for using unauthorized cellular phones. (Associated Press, 2007) Due to the government enforcement operations, it is extremely risky for the North Korean residents to use cellular phones continuously for more than a few minutes. In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, these North Koreans converse with their counterparts in South Korea by repeatedly turning their phones on and off and calling from the mountain sides, where the intercept vehicles cannot be deployed. Apparently, longer phone conversations are possible in rural areas where the enforcement is not as vigorous. (Joo, 2010) Blogging North Korea: Blogs can provide a wealth of information about North Korea. A Korean language blog called Nambuk Story is one such blog. Nambuk Story is administered by Joo Sung-Ha, a graduate of the Kim Il-sung University who defected from North Korea in 2001 and currently works as a reporter with the South Korean news paper Dong-A Ilbo. Joo’s blog contains essays on the experiences he and other North Korean defectors (to include those written by a former nurse corps officer of the Korean People’s Army) had while living in North Korea. The blog also contains Joo’s interviews with North Korean defectors. Recently, Joo posted a series of interviews with a former member of Kim Jong-il’s “pleasure squad” on his blog, which revealed some valuable information about Kim Jong-il’s personal life that are difficult to obtain. Joo’s blog also has articles about North Korea’s recent events. For sure, Nambuk Story is merely one of several blogs dedicated to telling the experiences of 4 UNCLASSIFIED

UNCLASSIFIED North Korean defectors and residents as well as providing some hard-to-get information about North Korean internal occurrences. Most of these blogs are written in Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, and as of the time of this publication, we were not able to find any English blogs of the same nature. There are, however, a plethora of English blogs about North Korea that provide analysis on North Korean related news, economy, and leadership activities. Some of these blogs include North Korea Leadership Watch, North Korean Economy Watch, and One Free Korea. While these blogs ordinarily do not provide first person accounts or news from within North Korea, they do provide some valuable analysis on what may be happening in North Korea. Photo-Sharing Sites: Another source of information on North Korea is the online photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Picasa. Flickr, for example, has a group named “North Korea (DPRK)” in which it contains 7,322 photographs of North Korea (or related to North Korea) taken personally, and a search of Picasa yielded over 20,000 personal photographs related to North Korea. Just who are these people who have visited North Korea and post the photographs they took in North Korea online? They range from international and non-governmental organization staffers, to multinational corporation employees, journalists and photo-journalists, and vacationers. While these personal photographs do not provide insights into the North Korean leadership or political activities, they do provide insights into the everyday life of North Korean residents, conditions of some of the infrastructures in and around Pyongyang and other large cities, market activities, and changes in the domestic propaganda messages. Implications: Fax machines provided a window into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 70’s and the 80’s. Today, it is cellular technology and the Internet that provide a window into the reclusive North Korea. With continued advancement of technology, the quantity, quality, and variety of information available on North Korea through open source and non-traditional intelligence means will continue to increase, which would serve to improve the understanding of North Korean internal situation and fill information gaps that exist today.



References: 1. Associated Press. (2007, June 15). North Korea Executes People Caught with Mobile Phones. Retrieved February 01, 2010, from Cellular-News.com: http://www.cellularnews.com/story/24361.php 2. Choe, S.H. (2010, January 24). Nimble Agencies Sneak News Out of North Korea. Retrieved February 01, 2010, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/25/world/asia/25north.html 3. Hwang, B.Y., & Son, I.S. (2010, January 31). Connected to the Regional City and County Party Officials...Even Smuggled in a Smart Phone. Retrieved February 01, 2010, from OhmyNews in Korean: http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx? CNTN_CD=A0001310443&PAGE_CD=N0000&BLCK_NO=3&CMPT_CD=M0006 4. Kim, H.G. (2008, October 24). Organization Introduction. Retrieved February 01, 2010, from NK Intellectuals Solidarity in Korean: http://hh093001.hompynara.com/h_board/1-1.htm 5. Yonhap News Agency. (2010, January 12). Cellular Phone is the Hero in getting to the Information from within North Korea. Retrieved January 31, 2010, from Chosun Ilbo in Korean: http://www.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/01/12/2010011200343.html 6. Joo, S.H. (2010, January 13). Time is Here for a South Korean Minister to preach to the North Koreans over a Cell Phone. Retrieved January 25, 2010, from Nambuk Story in Korean: http://www.journalog.net/nambukstory/22819


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