As North Koreans use phones, state finds new ways to censor

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WASHINGTON (AP) — North Koreans have gained unprecedented connectedness with greater access to media and devices like cellphones over Kim Jong Un's five-year rule. But private citizens' embrace of a state-controlled network has opened the way to unparalleled state censorship and surveillance in the long-isolated, totalitarian country.

A U.S.-government-funded report, released Wednesday, said technology is giving North Korean authorities "more modern forms of control" as they step up efforts to stop foreign content creeping in.

"North Korea not only demonstrates technological sophistication but also has the ability to dictate what devices their citizens use, and they have complete control over hardware and software that essentially no other country does," said Nat Kretchun, co-author of the report by the consulting group Intermedia.

While the global explosion of network communications and internet use over the past two decades has provided surveillance opportunities for both authoritarian and democratic governments, North Korea's case is unique. The communist government prohibits public access to the World Wide Web. Outside media trickles in, but with significant challenges.

The state's stranglehold over the flow of information was first subverted during a famine in the 1990s when informal markets emerged and citizens began trading with each other. For the past decade or more, outside digital devices and content have flowed into North Korea across the border from China, enabling people to watch forbidden content, typically South Korean and Chinese soap operas.

The Intermedia report, which is based on interviews with North Korean defectors, refugees and travelers, found more such information making its way in over the past five years, notwithstanding Kim's intensified efforts to stop it. He took power after his father's death in late 2011 and has cracked down on smuggling and illicit viewing of foreign media.

Nearly every segment of society, from the elite in Pyongyang to farmers in inland areas, has access at least to televisions and DVD players, the report found. North Koreans have shifted toward using thumb drives instead of compact discs as they can hold more content and are easier to hide and share.

Viewing outside content, rather than the stodgy fare of state broadcasters, is shaping people's behavior.

The report quoted a 22-year-old construction worker who defected in 2014 as saying that South Korean and Chinese dramas have made men more willing to voice their affection to women. He said men increasingly marry women they date rather than having arranged marriages.

The report also cites respondents who have more than one TV. One is fixed to the state TV channel and put on display in the house; the other is concealed and dedicated to South Korean programing.

The government is finding new methods of control. Kretchun said North Korea was taking steps on regulation of cellphones "to regain control of the information climate." It can do so without relying on internet service providers to spy on people in its network, as other governments might.

There are now more than 3 million cellphone users in the North Korea-only network that was established in 2008. The growth has allowed authorities that traditionally relied on human surveillance to gain "a far greater ability to monitor the communications of its citizens," the report found.

Authorities have tried to stop people sharing and viewing nonsanctioned media content on their phones, the report said. Around three years ago, authorities updated software used by all phones, making nonsanctioned media files unplayable.

North Korea also uses a program that records the browsing history on the user's SD data card, making it harder to conceal illicit content. While laptops and computers are less widespread, the operating system they use "watermarks" files, allowing authorities to track their origin.

In effect, North Korean devices are "completely compromised," Kretchun said, creating options for state surveillance and censorship "much more effective than just about anywhere else."

To call outside the country, North Koreans need illicit phones that can tap into Chinese networks along the nation's northern border. Limiting that option is now a priority for North Korea, the report found, and its technological capability to locate users has improved.

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