North Korea boosts surveillance of telecommunications to isolate citizens: Amnesty International report

Amnesty East Asia regional director Nicholas Bequelin speaking during a press conference on restrictions on mobile phones and outside information in North Korea, in Seoul on March 9, 2016. 
North Korea is cracking down on the private use of mobile p
Amnesty East Asia regional director Nicholas Bequelin speaking during a press conference on restrictions on mobile phones and outside information in North Korea, in Seoul on March 9, 2016. North Korea is cracking down on the private use of mobile phones to make international calls, as the authorities seek to bolster its citizens' isolation from the outside world, Amnesty International said. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - North Koreans caught using mobile phones to call families abroad risk being sent to political prison camps under an increasingly iron-fisted regime that is jamming devices and stepping up surveillance, according to a report from Amnesty International.

Government efforts to keep North Koreans from learning about the outside world and to obscure awareness of human rights violations in the country coincide with the rise of grey markets, where citizens procure everything from food and clothing to SIM cards and DVDs, Amnesty International said in a report "Connection Denied: Restrictions on Mobile Phones and Outside Information in North Korea".

Amnesty International said it undertook the research to document how the North Korean authorities were responding to the wider availability of new mobile technologies under the Kim Jong Un regime. More than three million subscribe to North Korea's domestic mobile phone service.

"The report finds that rather than allowing users to access the full potential of the technology, the North Korean government has sought to maintain its absolute monopoly over communications and the flow of information through a combination of increased controls, repression and intimidation of the population," Amnesty International said.

Some North Koreans are turning to "Chinese mobile phones" acquired in the black market to call overseas. And those who escaped the country and want to connect with their family in North Korea are bribing border soldiers to hand deliver the Chinese mobile phones, the report said. With the crackdown, the cost of typical bribes has risen to about US$500.

Cellphones have the potential to change North Korea by empowering its citizens, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., which owns Google, said on Wednesday.

Mr Schmidt, who was in Seoul to watch a Go match between artificial intelligence and a human player, visited North Korea in 2013.

"Since then I don't think the situation in North Korea has gotten better; I think it's probably gotten worse overall," he told reporters. "I think all of us believe that the mobile phone is a strong, strong empowerer of individuals and that eventually the mobile phone penetration in North Korea swill be a material impact in its internal structuring. That has not happened yet."

"The cost has gone up because I heard the surveillance has been strengthened, and the risk is higher for the soldiers," the report quoted a North Korean woman named So Kyung as saying. Amnesty International said it interviewed 17 people who recently left North Korea.

Those caught using a mobile phone to call someone in one of the countries labeled as "enemies", such as South Korea or the US, face imprisonment, the report said.

"In a bad case, we would be sent to the political prison camp, where we would expect a long prison term," So Kyung is quoted as saying in the report. "In a lighter case, we would be sent to a reform facility, and imprisonment would be one to two years. Most people get out with a bribe though."

The restrictions are even tighter for access to the Internet. Amnesty International called the situation in North Korea "quite exceptional in that the general population is completely denied access to the World Wide Web".

"This total disconnection, and the restriction of access to available technology to a small elite gives a whole new meaning to the term 'digital divide,"' the report said.

Dramas produced overseas are contraband. One woman reported she had been forced to bribe the authorities after her daughter was caught with a Japanese film on her mobile device.

When authorities raid homes, they start by shutting off power, making it impossible for families to eject suspect DVDs from machines, the report said.