Archive for November, 2022

North Korea strengthens neighborhood surveillance routines, says RFA

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, which cannot be fully confirmed, North Korean authorities have recently strengthened the neighborhood-level surveillance regime by formally instituting fines (presumably for the inminbanjang or by some neighborhood account, though the article doesn’t specify) for not registering outside visitors who stay overnight. This registration has long been a practice in North Korea and goes back at least to the 1950s, but during the last 20 years of marketization, has reportedly been less enforced at least in some parts of the country.

The surveillance regime in North Korea, like most other aspects of the country’s governance, is highly segmented along geographic lines. So we don’t know to what extent the development described here is relevant for the whole country. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting data point in what increasingly appears to be Kim Jong-un’s campaign to take North Korea’s surveillance system back to its roots (article only in Korean):

함경북도의 한 주민소식통은 24일 “오늘 도당위원회의 지시에 따라 새 ‘가정경비법’이 청진시 주민들에게 일제히 포치되었다”면서 “이 법은 이미 짜여진 사회안전망에 더해 주민자체 경비구조를 한층 강화하는 주민 통제법”이라고 자유아시아방송에 전했습니다.

소식통은 “오늘 청진시 포항구역의 매 인민반마다 ‘가정경비법’에 관한 인민반회의가 열렸다”면서 “회의에서는 ‘지역에서 주민들의 안전한 생활을 보장하기 위해 기존의 주민 자체경비체계를 더욱 강화하라는 법 내용에 대한 설명이 있었다”고 증언했습니다.

소식통은 “이번 가정경비법은 주로 인민반별 자체경비를 철저하게 해서 불순분자들의 침투를 막아야 한다는 것”이라면서 “이에 일부주민들은 불순분자의 침투를 막는다는 핑계로 주민 상호 감시를 더 강화하라는 것 아니냐며 불만을 토로했다”고 말했습니다.

소식통은 이어서 “현재 인민반 마을입구마다 있는 경비초소에는 주민들이 당번을 정해 돌아가면서 빨간 경비완장을 팔에 끼고 경비를 서고 있다”면서 “그런데 이번에 발표된 가정경비법에는 경비를 서는 주민이 외부인의 마을 출입 상황을 기록하지 않아 발생한 사건사고에 대해서는 책임지고 해당한 벌금을 물도록 되어 있다”고 설명했습니다.

(Source and full article: 김지은, “북, 주민통제 강화하는 ‘가정경비법’ 새로 제정,” Radio Free Asia, 25/11/2022.)


Satellite imagery shows North Korean government investments in surveillance and border security

Friday, November 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Al-Jazeera reports:

North Korean authorities have imposed “excessive and unnecessary” border measures since January 2020, including upgraded fences, guard posts and patrol roads, an analysis of satellite images by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows.

The beefed-up security includes the addition of 169 guard posts and nearly 20km (12 miles) of new fencing in the vicinity of the border city of Hoeryung, a popular transit point for smuggling and trade, between November 2020 and April 2022.

HRW said it had spoken to five North Korean defectors involved in smuggling goods in or out of the isolated country who have been unable to carry out their activities since February 2020.

“The North Korean government used purported COVID-19 measures to further repress and endanger the North Korean people,” said Lina Yoon, a senior Korea researcher at HRW.

“The government should redirect its energies to improving access to food, vaccines and medicine, and respecting freedom of movement and other rights.”

Yoon said past experience had shown that relying on state-run distribution of food and essential goods “only entrenches repression and can lead to famine and other catastrophes”.

Hanna Song, director of international cooperation at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), which was not involved in the report, said the findings mirrored other data, including the sharp decline in defections to South Korea, which fell from 1,047 in 2019 to just 42 so far this year.

“Using COVID-19 has been a great excuse for the Kim Jong-un regime to tell its people that they are protecting them, while actually just meeting their objectives of keeping the North Korean people isolated,” Song told Al Jazeera.

“That being said, NKDB has been able to see that the North Koreans are not completely closed off,” Song added. “In a survey that NKDB did with 399 North Korean escapees in September 2022, 71 people said that they had sent money to North Korea in 2022 and 87 people have had some form of contact with family members in North Korea.”

(Source and full article: “‘Excessive’: North Korea’s COVID curbs blamed for food crisis,” Al-Jazeera, November 17th, 2022.)


What upgrades of North Korea’s surveillance equipment say about policies and priorities

Monday, November 7th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

According to a recent report, North Korean authorities upgraded their system for monitoring and detecting use of foreign-made cell phones (which is illegal) along the border. This is all part of the general crackdown on “anti-socialist” phenomena over the last four-five years, and under Covid-19 in particular:

North Korea has replaced radio wave detectors installed in regions along the China-North Korea border with the latest models.

The authorities use the radio wave detectors to crack down on illegal mobile phones.

According to a Daily NK source in Yanggang Province, North Korean authorities recently replaced the radio wave detectors in border regions such as Hyesan and Samjiyon as part of its efforts to ferret out locals who use illegal foreign-made mobile phones.

The Ministry of State Security’s Bureau 10, the division in charge of radio wave surveillance, replaced the equipment under top secrecy from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15.

The source said that given how the ministry upgraded its detectors along the border to the latest models, it seems the ministry will once again wage a fierce war to root out users of illegal foreign-made mobile phones.

In fact, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of State Security has been conducting a sweeping “mop-up war” and “war of annihilation” in border regions against people who use illegal foreign-made mobile phones.

The Ministry of State Security has arrested many border residents on espionage charges, subjecting them to forced labor of varying severity. In serious cases, the ministry has even dragged off locals to political prison camps.

With border residents continuing to use illegal mobile phones to contact China, South Korea or other countries despite these efforts, the Ministry of State Security appears to have replaced its existing radio wave detectors with high-end ones capable of tracking the location of mobile phone users more quickly and accurately.

A defector who came to South Korea in 2019 told Daily NK that given how the Ministry of State Security installed the old radio wave detectors several years ago, it may have been time to replace them.

“In fact, if the ministry replaced them with new, highly capable radio wave detectors, it means they want to root out more Chinese-made mobile phone users, and even if not, the rumor that it installed new devices would have been effective in generating fear that the authorities will catch people who use Chinese-made mobile phones,” he said.

(Source: Kim Chae-hwan, “N. Korea replaces radio wave detectors on border with the latest models,” Daily NK, November 3, 2022.)

None of this information is possible to confirm, and the report relies on a small number of sources. Nonetheless, if accurate, the news is interesting for several reasons. For one, it highlights the regime’s increasing reliance on, and investments in, technology for surveillance. Moreover, it further highlights the government’s emphasis on border control and information censorship, which has increased significantly over the past few years.


North Korean imports from China turning toward food

Thursday, November 3rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The first items North Korea imported from China when railway freight trade started back up were mainly industrial goods, but lately, imports appear to have shifted more toward foodstuffs. Daily NK

According to a Daily NK source in China last Friday, freight trains have been departing every morning from the Chinese city of Dandong for the North Korean city of Sinuiju since Sept. 26.

From late September to early October, the freight cars have been mostly laden with aluminum window frames, tiles, living room lights and other construction supplies, but from mid-October, the trains are carrying a wider range of cargo.

Trains entering North Korea still carry construction or interior supplies such as aluminum window frames, wood for furniture and sawdust, as well as medical supplies like masks and antibiotics. However, since mid-October, foodstuffs have accounted for a far higher share of imports, so much so that over half of freight cars have been laden with various food items.

In fact, the items now accounting for a greater share of North Korean imports by freight trains from China include soybean paste, soy sauce, red pepper powder, sugar, seasonings, vinegar, garlic soybeans and other items. In particular, imports of foodstuffs needed to make kimchi have reportedly increased with the start of kimjang, or the kimchi-making season.

However, the freight trains have yet to begin carrying grains such as rice or wheat flour.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea is now focusing on importing food from China,” Daily NK, November 1st, 2022.)