In North Korea, smartphones are matter of life and death

AP file photo
A woman reads a North Korean state news article about Kim Jong Un on her smartphone in Pyongyang in January.

SEOUL — As an exception to the global trend of an ever-expanding cyberspace, North Korea has been ratcheting up efforts to keep its citizens in the pre-internet era, motivated by an extreme fear that the free flow of information into and out of the country could open the floodgates of change on the reclusive regime.

A private network

North Korean defectors report that there are homegrown smartphones in circulation in the country that are outwardly indistinguishable from the types of phones available elsewhere in the world. But according to an expert in South Korea who obtained and disassembled one of the devices, “It seems North Korea has created its own proprietary system, primarily built with components sourced from China and Taiwan, that allows it to exercise control over telecommunications.”

Critically, North Korean smartphones are unable to access the internet, make international calls, or otherwise make contact outside the country. The only sort of content that can be seen on a North Korean cellphone screen is video game apps, messages transmitted within the country, and news reports disseminated by government mouthpieces, such as the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Mobile surveillance

According to a man who defected to South Korea in 2017, smartphones in the North come factory-loaded with apps that will automatically censor content from overseas. But many users avail themselves of workarounds that temporarily sidestep the censors, such as international movies and TV dramas stored on memory cards that can be purchased at black markets and viewed surreptitiously on smartphones.

When attending university in North Korea five years ago, the defector said he would often watch “Chuno” (The Slave Hunters) under the cover of his bedsheets at home in the wee hours of the night, knowing full well that these covert viewings of the popular South Korean historical drama could cost him his life if discovered. Classmates who were caught passing around similar foreign programming were punished with nearly a year of labor at a facility on the school campus. He was once questioned by a routine patrol, but managed to bluff his way through, claiming that he was only up studying.

“In a place devoid of freedom, how deeply those doses of freedom permeated my soul,” the man said. “I was willing to risk my life if it meant satiating my desire to be free. [Those movies] transported me to another world.”

Fear of dissent

Already reeling from the heavy economic blows dealt by the national border blockade against the novel coronavirus and a series of natural disasters, the regime led by Kim Jong Un, general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, fears adding fuel to the populace’s discontent.

In a written statement released at the end of April, Kim signaled his intent to stave off the influx of information from the outside world via digital technologies, saying, “we must not tolerate those elements which would ruin the sound spirit of our youth.”

Last December, North Korea enacted a law to “reject reactionary thought and culture.” Under the law, those who distribute South Korean TV dramas and other cultural materials can be sentenced to a maximum penalty of death. Late last year, the South Korean newspaper Kukmin Ilbo reported that about 10,000 North Korean students had “given themselves up” to police for secretly watching South Korean dramas and movies.

Park Won-gon, an associate professor at South Korea’s Ewha Womans University, said the cultural clampdown is primarily targeted at young people, ranging from their mid-teens up to about 30 years of age. As the young generation has had more contact with foreign culture through the black markets, which emerged as the state suspended rations, this demographic is eyed as being less loyal to the regime. They are also the smartphone generation.

“Kim Jong Un is afraid that young people will turn their backs,” said Park.

In the words of one defector, “If the people of North Korea gain access to other countries through the internet, the regime will be overthrown within a year.”

Preventing leaks

North Korea is also sensitive to the flow of information out of the country. The tight digital firewall is meant to conceal the regime’s weaknesses from foreign eyes and avoid international criticism over its human rights issues.

According to defectors and others, content that could previously be viewed on smartphones is now being blocked, including the ideological writings and videos of Kim himself.

Even personnel tasked with making propaganda for the regime have been left unable to access the printed materials they formerly used when making the rounds of communities throughout the country. Instead, they have been “educating” people with the aid of videos and other materials store on USB drives.

Such content is now locked with a one-time password.

“The North Korean authorities do not trust their own people tasked with making propaganda for the regime,” explains one expert. “These moves are meant to prevent videos and other materials from leaking out of the country.”


An estimated 4.5 million — roughly 18% — of North Koreans are thought to have cellphones, according to a report released last summer by the research arm of a government-affiliated bank in South Korea. Although the numbers on smartphone ownership in North Korea are unknown, a South Korean expert believes that they could account for about 30% of all cellphones in the DPRK.