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Recently, major news such as North Korea's currency reform and the outbreak of H1N1 influenza were first uncovered by North Korea-related non-governmental organizations. Information that the Korean government cannot verify is being broadcast live on these organizations' homepage every minute. Cell phone is the most important device in making this possible. In the era of 18,000 North Korean defectors, cell phones are unveiling North Korea's shroud of secret.
Elite Defectors Hack North Korea with Cell Phones
The intelligensia defectors working in the North Korea-related NGO are the core contributors of acquiring North Korean information via cell phone. They were former elites in North Korea, having graduated from colleges and usually worked as officers, which makes them the top experts of the realities of North Korea. They operate their own intelligence network within North Korea. They are able to detect North Korea's changes and the source of information simply by listening to a few words over the phone. They would sometimes ask the North Korean collaborators to create a report on the information they need as well.
The collaborators within North Korea, although usually paid, are nonetheless dissatisfied with the North Korean regime. Relying on them, the elite defectors can act as a dagger threatening the regime by spreading information that the North Korean regime does not want to tell its people or connecting with the anti-establishment groups within North Korea.
It has only been around ten years since North Korean people communicated with China or Korea via cell phone. At first, the cell phones were brought in by Chinese smugglers who needed to contact their North Korean counterpart. But as the number of defectors to Korea increases, the number and use of cell phones connected to North Korea has been increasing as well. Cell phones are used to make appointments, sending people and money, or delivering goods that people ordered. There is even a case in which a Korean pastor uses cell phone to proselytize by calling his followers in North Korea at a specific time every week.
A cell phone connected to North Korea, combined with individualized reporting through Korea's Internet, provides a wealth of information that surpasses traditional media. It is expected that there will be more occasions of North Korea-related NGOs competing for breaking news.
Information Belt Formed Along North Korea-China Border
Shaded area signifies the belt where a direct call to South Korea is possible.
Notice the wider band on the western edge of the map.
Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea are used for communication between Korea and North Korea. One can use the same procedure for dialing a Chinese cell phone. However, not everywhere in North Korea can one speak with Koreans -- it is only possible along the Tumen and Yalu Rivers. North Korean border cities and towns are usually located along the river at the foot of the mountain, and the Chinese cell phone signals cannot travel over the mountain. Drawing a map of the areas receiving the Chinese cell phone signals results in a narrow and long band along the North Korea-China border -- a belt that serves as a window between North Korea and outside. Around the flats at the mouth of the river at Shinuiju, the signal travels all the way to Yongcheon, which is several dozen kilometers away. However, a satellite phone can connect to Korea from any place in North Korea.
Usually Korean-Chinese act as a broker to smuggle phones into North Korea and pay phone bills, as defectors who live in Korea usually form a considerable network in China in the course of escaping North Korea. Calls with Korea usually occurs at night. North Korea began setting up wired phone in individual homes since around 2000. There are currently 90,000 North Koreans enrolled in the wireless phone service, which began in December 2008. These phones, while unable to make direct calls to Korea, periodically send information from the inland, including Pyongyang, toward the information belt along the North Korea-China border. In other words, there is a system in place through which a person located at the border can verify information by calling Pyongyang and immediately relay it to Korea.
North Korea Invests in Signal-Detecting Devices
North Korean government is well aware of both the method by which cell phones connect to South Korea and the danger it poses to the regime. Several years ago, North Korea purchased a fleet of German-made signal-detecting vehicles (each of which cost nearly $1 million) as well as portable detectors from China. These make it risky to speak more than a minute in the border cities in North Korea. Informants make their calls either while constantly connecting and disconnecting, or in a nearby mountain where a vehicle cannot easily reach. A relatively longer call can be made in the rural areas.
North Korea punishes those calling with South Korea harshly, going as far as execution. China is also known to have a system that automatically taps any calls near the border, but it is unknown whether it shares the information with North Korea.
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