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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Controlling the Border

by | August 21st, 2014 | 07:00 am

Recently, we ran a post on ongoing efforts to control cell phone communication along the border. The measures include jamming of signals, fixed and mobile radio wave detectors and—somewhat contradictorily—the distribution of more cellphones to security forces in the region. (An Open Radio for North Korea story on the first six months of the Kim Jong Un regime claims that some of this equipment might have been imported from Germany, an example of “dual use” if there ever was one). In this post, we report on a few more recent stories that talk about these control efforts.

In Witness to Transformation, we tracked changes in the penal code as a lagging indicator of what was going on in the underground economy. Our basic hypothesis was that if it was illegal, someone was doing it. A recent piece in The DailyNK reports that five clauses have been added to Article 60 of the country’s criminal code, which pertains to attempts to overthrow the state:

  • Illegal phone contact with foreigners, including South Koreans;
  • Viewing South Korean dramas or DVDs and listening to [foreign] radio broadcasts;
  • Using or dealing in drugs;
  • Transnational human and sex trafficking;
  • Aiding and abetting defectors and leaking state secrets.

Linking these activities to overthrowing the state clearly implies much harsher punishment. From the outset of Kim Jong Un’s rule there were reports of executions along the border (see the Open Radio story above).

Several recent stories discuss the technologies involved in circumventing state controls, and the range is wide. NKNews has a great story—complete with pictures—of an “underground radio” put together from a variety of smuggled or purloined components. The defector who brought the radio out claimed they could access VOA, RFA, and a number of defector stations emanating from South Korea as well. There is no information in the article on where the defector was from; signal strength would presumably be a major issue for how widespread such devices would be distributed.

At the other end of the spectrum—and clearly an elite product—is the ubiquitous USB (see DailyNK story). A small one can store about three episodes of a South Korean soap opera; large ones obviously more. The advantage is that these devices can be easily and quickly removed from a computer and can easily pass information along; the disadvantage is that the reach is relatively narrow, confined to those with access to a computer. The DailyNK story reports that in addition to the units assigned to controlling access to media and the “anti-socialist” behavior of selling such products, a new unit has been formed of high-school students to monitor the dissemination of such products among youth.

In addition to controlling goods that cross the border, the regime faces the ongoing problem of controlling people that cross it. In a piece for The Diplomat, North Korean refugee Seongmin Lee picked up a story first reported by KBS that the regime plans on destroying buildings in a 200 meter buffer zone from the border. The justification was the construction of a road that would run along the border, particularly in Ryanggang Province. When I was in Northeast China last week, a professor from Jilin University mentioned rumors that the regime was contemplating moving people out of a zone that extended as far as 3 kilometers inland from the border. These are clearly massive projects, and yet to be confirmed, let alone implemented. Nonetheless, they are not implausible.

Another sign of the regime’s concerns center on travelers to the country, mostly Chinese. In a story back in June, DailyNK reported on new restrictions on entry into Sinuiju on the part of residents from elsewhere in the country. The justification: a change in policy to permit Chinese tourists to overnight in the city, thus providing more opportunities for contact. An RFA story notes similar concerns with Chinese traders staying with North Korean relatives. Previously, these visitors could stay in private homes; henceforth, they will be able to do so on one 15-day trip a year, after which they will be required to stay in tourist hotels. The RFA story focused on the government’s revenue motive, but the new arrangements also permit surveillance as even meetings with family members are supposed to take place outside the home.

Our natural instinct is to think that these efforts are all doomed to failure; a particularly hopeless example is an apparent injunction that trade officials stationed abroad are not supposed to use the internet. But some of these controls are clearly effective, as can be seen in the fall-off in refugees entering the South (from 2706 in 2011 to 1509 and 1516 in 2012-3). And the perennial question is whether the availability of cultural product from the rest of the world is necessarily subversive of the regime or simply provides a tolerated insider good that keeps regime elites satisfied. Our bet is with the former: that we should try to get information in and out. But we cannot rule out that South Korean soap operas don’t bring down authoritarian regimes.