By Kathryn Wernke, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
October 6, 2020
The North Korean regime and its control over its population rely heavily on the propagandized version of both the state and the world that it feeds to its people. However, as outside information flows into the country, a shift in the internal climate is providing a unique opportunity for social change. While generally seen as closed off and heavily controlled, North Korea has seen an increasingly available influx of information about the rest of the world. Lately, illegal Chinese cell phones and other technologies smuggled across the border and spread throughout the nation via informal, grey markets have driven this trend. Likewise, the number of officially registered cellular devices in the country has drastically increased. Currently, North Korean mobile networks cover areas with approximately 94% of its population, thus connecting North Koreans in an unprecedented way. Isolation and fear have been key components in the regime’s survival, but, as external media becomes more widely available, the Kim family faces a looming threat of an evolving society.
As a technological revolution has swept across the world, North Korea has largely lagged behind. However, the regime has more recently recognized the need to modernize as the country attempts to compete on the world stage. According to the Korea Development Bank (KDB), North Korea is currently home to approximately 6 million registered cell phones, which accounts for roughly 18% of the population. These phones are primarily concentrated among wealthier demographics in more urban areas and among younger citizens who consider these phones a measure of status. Between less wealthy citizens, cell phones are often shared and their usage can be sold to neighbors making them a valuable investment. While these devices are still relatively antiquated with 3G technology and only provide a North Korea-bound intranet, growing mobile phone usage creates an unprecedented level of connectivity within the populace.
Concurrently, illegal Chinese cell phones smuggled across the border have become more common, especially in the northern border regions of North Korea. Many involved in business, smuggling, and trade use these devices to coordinate and obtain intelligence from outside the country. These cell phones have aided in increasing the movement of information, goods, and people across the border and allowed defectors to maintain contact with their families and friends still inside North Korea. Currently, smuggled mobile phones are the quickest way to get real time information both into and out of the country through channels that are already trusted by the people.
While there are many challenges in using mobile phones to distribute information, their use allows for much faster information dissemination than ever before. As Chinese cell phone usage has grown, other Chinese technologies, such as the messaging app WeChat, are known to frequently be used by defectors and other groups to send videos and other media to North Korean people. Phones with content from other countries have spread via black markets, and many North Koreans, similar to citizens of other countries, have a preference for watching and sharing media, even on state-sanctioned devices. Furthermore, various organizations outside the country have used a network of mobile phones to gather intelligence inside the nation and export it. Smugglers, those involved in business, external organizations, and individual defectors have all recognized the value of these networks and are utilizing them in increasingly innovative ways.
Consequently, both mobile phones and information have also served a humanitarian purpose by connecting the people of North Korea in a way that was previously unimaginable. The regime has worked hard to create a society separated by class, or songbun, and region, tightly controlling the spread of information and the movement of people. Increasingly, cellular devices have been facilitating fellowship and societal belonging among North Koreans, especially younger generations. Similarly, as access to external media grows, so called “horizontal bonds, facilitated by shared implication in prohibited behaviors, economic interactions, or simply curiosity about the outside world” have presented a way for North Koreans to discover and share ideas that contradict the fabricated reality perpetuated by the regime. Likewise, there have been incidents where citizens have independently organized through cell phone usage, such as the case of a soccer club organized at Pyongyang’s Kim Chaek University of Technology, which greatly surprised officials. Undoubtedly, connections created by mobile phone usage and other networks have the ability to allow North Koreans to become more trusting of and linked to one another.
The information shared across the border through illegal mobile phones and smuggling can then be circulated via existing and ever-expanding word-of-mouth networks. A 2010 Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) North Korea Refugee and Traveler Survey found that 98% of their respondents had “received information that was not available in the domestic media via word of mouth.” The mounting importance of word-of-mouth networks is largely attributed to the grey market structure in the country, which is responsible for most citizens’ survival. After the famine of the 1990s, the people could no longer rely on the State to provide for the them, and an informal, grey market thrived. As activity in these markets rose, the monopoly that the regime held on information began to diminish due to media and technology traded and information diffused along trade routes. Through the rising number of cellular devices and usage in the nation, these existing networks could be more quickly and easily mobilized.
However, there is currently a limit to what can be spread through the country using mobile phones. As the technology available to the general population has grown, so too has the ability of the government to monitor its citizen’s activities. Under Kim Jong-un, officials have cracked down on technology using watermarks to track files, systems that block unapproved video files, and a “Red Flag” program that both maintains a log of all pages visited and randomly screenshots the user’s activity. The ability to track phone calls has also become more accurate, which severely limits the amount of time a sensitive call can last and contributes to anxieties that deter usage of illegal Chinese phones. Self-censorship, spurred on by increasingly-severe penalties under Kim Jong-un, is widespread, as North Koreans believe that everything they do on their devices is monitored. This creates a dangerous situation for those who are involved in smuggling potentially damaging information about the regime, a primary challenge in utilizing this network.
Nonetheless, information campaigns are often a key component of strategies employed by both nonprofit organizations and government groups in their attempts to inspire change in the country. Through the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017, the United States expanded its use of information operations to include a multitude of electronics, including cell phones, and allowed for “grants to distribute information-receiving devices, electronically-readable devices, and other informational sources into North Korea.” This renewal is due to the fact that foreign news and media have plainly been shown to have a significant impact on the attitudes North Koreans hold about the outside world. According to a 2012 InterMedia report, contact with external news and entertainment media is associated with a better opinion of South Korea and the United States. Thus, it is clear that information campaigns are not only well supported by many international groups, but have also proven to be effective in changing views within the country.
It is important to note that there does not yet seem to be a relationship between watching external media and negative feelings about the North Korean regime. Similarly, there has been no evidence, as of yet, that intelligence coming out of North Korea has directly affected regime stability. However, this does not necessarily mean this will continue to be the case, and the simple fact that Kim Jong-un is so concerned about controlling information is a testament to how dangerous he thinks it is to his grip on power. The picture painted of the rest of the world by the regime is one of chaos, suffering, and poverty. As North Koreans continue to be exposed to outside sources of information via news and entertainment media, their perception of the world is changing to one that is fundamentally different from the reality that their government propagates. This changed perception has the ability to erode the legitimacy of the state, which is known to work on a personal scale, as access to foreign media is consistently cited as one of the primary factors in defections from the North.
Ultimately, the path forward is clear. Cell phones, the grey market, and word-of-mouth networks need to be at the center of a renewed information campaign challenging the North Korean regime’s draconian information control. Further innovation and development of technologies to subvert the regime’s surveillance are necessary to ensure both the perceived and real safety of those involved. These campaigns are vital to changing the general sentiment of the North Korean people to one that is independent of regime propaganda. On the ground, there is already an extensive network across the border and throughout the country via cell phones, word of mouth, and the grey market. The climate within the nation is also favorable, as North Koreans are more comfortable sharing information with each other than ever before. All of the necessary factors are in place for a successful campaign against the regime, and a concerted effort led by human rights organizations has the ability to affect a real and lasting change on the fundamental framework of North Korea.
Kathryn Wernke is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies with concentrations in International Economics and Relations.
 Nat Kretchun and Jane Kim, A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment, (Washington, D.C.: InterMedia, 2012), 1. https://web.archive.org/web/20120601123649/http:/www.intermedia.org/press_releases/A_Quiet_Opening_FINAL.pdf.
 Yonho Kim, Cell Phones in North Korea: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution?, (Washinton, D.C.: US-Korea Institute, 2014), 8,
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 5.
 Yong-hwan Jeong and Eun-jee Park, “18 percent of North Koreans now thought to own mobile phones,” Korea JoongAng Daily, August 11, 2020, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2020/08/11/business/tech/North-Korea-smartphone/20200811180400430.html.
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 56.
 Jeong and Park, “18 percent of North Koreans now thought to own mobile phones.”
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 50.
 Ibid., 54, 57.
 Martyn Williams, Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019), 34, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Williams_Digital_Trenches_Web_FINAL.pdf.
 Ibid., 32.
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 55.
 Kim, Cell Phones in North Korea, 29.
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 3.
 Kim, Cell Phones in North Korea, 21.
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 10.
 Ibid., 5.
Kim, Cell Phones in North Korea, 7.
 Williams, Digital Trenches, 35-36.
 Jieun Baek, North Korea's Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 151.
 Robert King, “North Koreans Want External Information, But Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 15, 2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-koreans-want-external-information-kim-jong-un-seeks-limit-access.
Kim, Cell Phones in North Korea, 31.
 King, “North Koreans Want External Information, But Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access.”
 U.S. Congress, House, North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017, HR 2061, 115th
Cong., introduced in House April 6, 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2061/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22North+KOrean+human+rights%22%5D%7D&r=1.
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 31.
 Ibid., 33.
 Kim, Cell Phones in North Korea, 39.
 King, “North Koreans Want External Information, But Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access.”
 Williams, Digital Trenches, 25.
 Kretchun and Kim, A Quiet Opening, 27.
 Ibid., 1.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.