North Korean efforts to curb “casual espionage” have backfired. A new nationwide propaganda program reminded everyone that making a few hundred dollars for supplying foreigners, even Chinese or Russians, with bits of information was illegal. Many North Koreans had heard about this but did not know enough to get involved. The new government warnings were detailed enough to get a lot more North Koreans connected with this system and many are earning valuable foreign currency for supplying local gossip and observations.
For over a decade the North Korean government has tried, without success, to prevent foreign journalists and intelligence services from buying bits of information from North Koreans visiting (usually on business) northeast China and (much less frequently) other foreign lands. The information being paid form would e considered gossip and of no military value if it were from anywhere but North Korea. Much of this information was not even about military or political affairs. But to reporters and intel analysts all these bits of gossip add up over months or years and provide a better picture of what is going on in North Korea. There are more and more Chinese “information brokers” who will regularly collect dozens of such bits of data (for a few dollars to over a hundred dollars each) each week. The brokers will then sort and bundle these tidbits and offer them to buyers (usually foreigners) who will pay many times more than what the broker paid for this stuff. Brokers often have networks of sources in North Korea that can get time-sensitive data to a broker, and receive a much higher price for it. The North Korean government considers all this espionage but there were hundreds of active (and even more semi-active or inactive) providers in North Korea when the current campaign against “casual espionage” began. Now there are a lot more North Koreans doing it and even if the secret police catch more people in the act (usually via a cell phone call) and then publicly execute some of them, the problem is only going to get worse. Life is too harsh in North Korea and the money offered is too attractive.
This problem began to get worse after 2005 when it became possible to sell such data without leaving North Korea. This was because it was easy for North Koreans living near the Chinese border to access Chinese cell phone service. It was possible to get a signal there, and the North Korean government saw this as a major security leak. People can say whatever they want when using Chinese cell phone service and the government was determined to stop this phone traffic. Using a growing network of secret police equipped with portable cell phone signal detectors (small enough to fit in a pocket) the risk of getting caught increased. This made people more careful in using illegal Chinese cell phones. But the practice continues. The cell phone users are usually engaged in commercial activities, or simply communicating with friends and family. Some North Koreans have established a lucrative business by selling North Koreans access to relatives in China, South Korea or elsewhere, via calls on these phones. The government wanted to stop all of this and now finds it has made it worse, with more people actively seeking to become “spies.”