Murphy's Law: Death Before Disconnection


December 6, 2019: North Korea, the most oppressive police state in the world, resisted the cell phone for a long time. Resistance was futile as cell phones were an unwelcome communications device that got into the country anyway because of Chinese doing with business in North Korea and the cell phone towers on the Chinese side of the border. This provided the Chinese government and commercial visitors coverage several kilometers into North Korea. Word spread in North Korea of this wondrous new communications device and North Koreans began obtaining Chinese cell phones and using them near the border

Now, more than a decade later, legal North Korean (made in China) cell phones have become essential for many North Koreans. This is especially true of many government officials, the secret police, farmers and the growing number of legal (“donju”) entrepreneurs running the free markets plus a growing number of privately controlled enterprises. Unexpected benefits included eliminating a lot of traveling. Given the decrepit transportation system, it is difficult and expensive to travel. With cellphones, you can check market prices nationwide and in China as well as send and receive pictures of products. On the downside, there are legal games that kids and adults get addicted to. There are even more addictive (and illegal) foreign games, but for most North Korea cell phone users it is safer to just keep it legal. That’s because the cell phone has become essential for communicating with distant friends and family, either via calls or email. People can access a lot of needed information available on the closed (to the outside world) internal Internet (or Intranet) used in North Korea. This includes a lot of material useful to students as well as for many professions and even women at home caring for young children or seeking help with some household tasks like cooking, repairs or cleaning. The widespread, at least outside the capital, electricity shortages are handled by buying and sharing a solar panel. These are widely used for recharging cell phones as well as the less common tablets and laptops.

The government puts a priority on keeping the cell phone towers operational and has generators for that. But even when the network is down there are standalone apps that are still useful or at least entertaining. On the downside, at least for the government, most of those legal cell phones have digital cameras and more people are taking more photos. More of those photos are getting out of the country, which is a security nightmare for the government which has long sought to tightly control picture taking inside North Korea and restrict which photos leave the country. Conventional photography is dying out and the outside world now has access to more photos of life inside North Korea. The police can still arrest anyone in North Korea with a cell phone containing “forbidden” photos but people who take such photos usually have some way to hide them.

Another problem for the government is the growing presence of a new luxury item; foreign cell phones. Officially the government is appalled at the persistence and spread of this illegal cell phone use. Privately, government officials are well aware of what is actually going on and can’t officially admit that the presence of cell phones, forbidden media and the spread of legal free markets (creating more North Koreans who can afford to pay bribes if caught) is undermining the control the government once exercised over the population. Worse, many of the cell phone outlaws are children of senior officials. That’s the one percent of the population that keeps the police state going. Occasionally the government will make an example of one of these ruling class kids. But such punishment is bad for the morale of the key families and cannot be used frequently. The fact that such misbehavior persists and thrives is a sign that the North Korean police state is in trouble with no solution in sight. The fact is that cell phones have become essential items in North Korea and there is no going back on that.

North Korean cell phone ownership rapidly increased over the last decade. At first, only a few thousand legal and many more illegal (Chinese) cell phones were in use. Now 70 percent of households have at least one cell phone. Over four million cell phones are in use and about a quarter of those are illegal. The primary use of cell phones is communication, given the scarcity and unreliability of private landline phones and the unreliable electricity supply. North Korean users found that by keeping their cell phones charged they would still have service during the increasingly frequent periods when there was no power. The growing use of solar panels by North Koreans is mainly for keeping cell phones charged during power outages, especially extended ones.

After long resisting the introduction of the more powerful smartphones North Korea finally relented in 2013. That was when North Korea announced that it had designed and begun manufacturing a smartphone (using the Android operating system). Foreign experts believed this was another publicity stunt and that the phones were actually manufactured to order from one of the many Chinese firms that do this. That proved to be the case. North Korea has never developed much of a local consumer electronics manufacturing capability. There are plenty of Chinese manufacturers willing to do the job cheaper than North Korea could manage. North Korean smartphones are modified to make it more difficult for users to do unauthorized things like make international calls, access the Internet outside North Korea or use unauthorized apps. North Korea allows these phones to freely download approved apps, videos and music. By 2015 North Korea announced that users could download a digital version of a boring state-run publication; Rodong Sinmun. The only people who download it were government officials who believed it would be a mistake not to. The most popular downloads were illegal. Yet because the state monitors what is downloaded onto these smartphones, an underground industry to provide illegal apps to get forbidden content on North Korean cell phones soon emerged. Much of the work on creating and distributing these illegal apps is done by volunteers, and some are state trained professional hackers. This was a truly disturbing development. It showed that in some ways North Korea was just like the more affluent developed nations. For North Korean leaders this appeared as a very disturbing development.

Despite the high price of these North Korea smartphones (about $500 initially, in a country where GDP per capita is under $2,000), there were soon  over 300,000 users, many of them members of the new donju class. When the North Korea smartphones were introduced there were already over a million illegal cell phones which could access the international Internet if near the Chinese border or a foreign wi-fi hotspot within North Korea. These hotspots were available in the North Korean capital. There, many embassies had installed powerful wi-fi systems that can be easily used by nearby North Koreans. These wi-fi routers are set up so they do not need a password. Many embassies do this on purpose to allow news of the outside world to get into North Korea via an uncensored Internet link (usually via a satellite link). The presence of these wi-fi hotspots after 2012 forced the government to allow more, but not universal, access to the global Internet

The North Korean government allowed some access to the Internet as they introduced smartphones. In early 2014 North Korea expanded Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of these users only have access to the North Korean Internet, which is called “Bright.” This consists of a few thousand websites, all hosted within North Korea and mostly containing educational or propaganda material plus government announcements of importance. The news sites on Bright give the government version of the news. Discussion is permitted but constantly monitored for disloyalty. Bright is isolated from the international Internet and access to Internet sites outside North Korea is strictly monitored, as is email outside the country. Anyone who misuses either Bright or international Internet access is severely punished. Nevertheless, the North Korean government has tried to make this intranet more useful by posting information like train schedules and directories of government offices as well as commercial enterprises like the growing number of restaurants. The existence of state-approved PCs and laptops also made it possible to easily transfer illegal content (via a USB cable) to smartphones. Progress comes at a price, often a price police states find are much higher than expected.

Such was the case with Internet access which made free embassy wi-fi networks so dangerous. There have been several instances of wealthy North Koreans moving to neighborhoods with an embassy wi-fi network just so they, and their kids, could have access to the web outside of North Korea. In particular, North Koreans wanted access to the growing number of Korean language websites, most of them in South Korea.

Meanwhile, the situation is quite different down south. South Korea was an early pioneer in making Internet access, especially high-speed service, available inexpensively and on a wide scale. In 2000 some 40 percent of South Koreans had Internet access and ten years later that had risen to 81 percent. Thus by 2005 over 95 percent of South Korean mobile phones had Internet access and by 2006 over half of home Internet users had high-speed access. Now all South Korean Internet users have high-speed access and the speeds are the highest in the world.

Although an American firm (Apple) invented the modern smartphone in 2005, it was a South Korean firm (Samsung) that went on to become the world’s largest producer of smartphones. This did not go unnoticed in North Korea where people found out about Samsung and how fellow Koreans were dominant players in these new technologies. It’s illegal to even acknowledge such forbidden knowledge in North Korea but the northern government could not keep the news out or suppress the admiring reaction of many North Koreans. Samsung cell phones are very much forbidden in North Korea but getting one was considered one of the highest achievements of North Korea cell phone users.

North Koreans also noticed the abundance of Korean language Internet content down south. Those who can connect to these South Korean sites can use “grabber” apps (many of them available free) to download all the content on a website. This can then be passed around inside North Korea via a USB memory stick or micro-SD card. The North Korean government does not like this sort of thing but so far has preferred to avoid international condemnation for cracking down on embassy Internet use or the growing illegal use of illegal cell phones and content. Yes, people are regularly arrested and sent to labor camps. The North Korea government cannot afford to imprison all the cell phone and content criminals it catches, much less the even larger number who avoid detection or arrest. It’s a war the North Korean government is losing but cannot even afford to talk about openly without admitting defeat and helplessness.

Nations like North Korea are extremely secretive when it comes to sharing data on things like how many of their citizens have electronic devices, or what types they use. Despite that, it is possible to get past that state-mandated secrecy by using the resources of international marketing and BI (Business Intelligence) firms. One easy example is obtaining statistics on cell phone and computer use. This is done by marketing software which identifies which type of browser and operating system visitors to millions of web sites are using. The data is not perfect. This is especially true when it comes to North Korea, which limits access to the regular (international) Internet by forcing most North Korean Internet users to only access a separate “North Korea Only” Internet created and managed by the government. Yet marketing data shows that about 7.5 percent of North Koreans who access the Internet via cell phone use Apple iPhones. At the same time, seven percent of North Korean computers with international access use Apple laptops or tablets.

Despite many restrictions, there are many North Koreans who use Chinese, South Korean and American cell phones. Although it is illegal to use any cell phone but the customized (for security) ones made in China for the North Korean government, the reality is that South Korean (Samsung) and American (Apple) phones are very popular in North Korea. Samsung is one of the top cell phone developers and manufacturers in the world and a source of pride for all Koreans no matter where they live. Technically it is illegal for North Koreans to know much about South Korea much less praise any South Korean accomplishments but the reality is that many North Koreans, of all classes, own and secretly use Samsung phones. Apple phones are also forbidden except for senior leadership. Many other North Koreas also own Apple cell phones, though not because they are fashionable or favored by the ruling Kim dynasty, but because Apple phones have the best security of any cellphone on the market. If you want to keep communications secret, sending and receiving text messages via an Apple phone is the way to go. Apple phones are particularly popular with those who regularly make calls to the outside world via areas along the Chinese border where North Koreans can catch a signal from Chinese cell phone towers and communicate worldwide. This is illegal and expensive if you are caught because the cost of bribing your way out of this has gone way up in the last few years. If you can’t afford the bribe, you lose your phone and possibly your life because of the high death rate in the labor camps that serve as prisons.

It is difficult but not impossible to use an unlocked (equipped with SIM card) iPhone in North Korea. To a certain extent owning an Apple cell phone or laptop is something of a religious experience in North Korea. That’s because the ruling Kim family has, for the past two generations, been major fans of Apple products. The current ruler (since 2011) Kim Jong Un is a big fan, and user, of Apple products. He got that from his father Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 to 2011 and was a big fan of personal computers and cell phones. The Kim dynasty is literally worshipped in North Korea and the many museums and memorial facilities serve as “temples” of Kim worship. One of these, devoted to Kim Jong Il, put on display some of the things Kim Jong Il used and that included a MacBook laptop.

Despite its poverty and increasingly unreliable electricity supply, North Korea has eagerly adopted the cell phone, often for uses the government forbids. Currently, over two-thirds of North Koreans have access to a cell phone. But there are restrictions. For example, North Korea tried to keep forbidden media (South Korean and Chinese videos and music) off North Korean cell phones by installing a tracking and authentication software on official North Korean smartphones. These are the only cellphones most North Koreans can legally own. This app was mandatory and police can check for it any time they want. If the app is not there you go to a prison camp or pay the cop a large bribe.

Over the last few years, there have been a growing number of illegal apps developed by North Koreans to enable cell phone users to put forbidden media on their phones and play it without getting caught. This should not come as a surprise because North Korea has developed a formidable force of government trained hackers since the 1990s. A growing number of the official and unofficial (self-taught) hackers have secretly developed cell phone apps for all sorts of tasks, not just ones that circumvent the tracking and media access features of North Korean cell phones. These illegal apps also include stealth features that make it difficult for police to easily find that a phone has illegal media and tracking avoidance apps installed. There is an economic incentive for this because the police quickly found that they could make a lot of money by taking bribes from people caught with foreign content and illegal apps on their cell phones, or any evidence that the cell phone was equipped to carry out an illegal task.

Police are supposed to seize cell phones found to contain illegal apps and content. Police soon realized that it was better for them if they took the bribe instead. Police could get away with this by meeting their quota of arrests and confiscations while waiting for the next bribery jackpot. For cell phone owners the bribe was potentially a matter of life or death. Labor camps are unhealthy places to be and spending a few years in one carries a high risk (30 percent or more depending on age and health) of death. This is another example of how popular cell phones are, even in North Korea, where owning one can literally get you killed.




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