North Korea has been confiscating cell phones, concerned that the devices may allow protestors to coordinate uprisings and harm the isolated country’s delicate political climate.
According to the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity group, the country has begun repossessing mobile phones smuggled in from China, urging citizens to give them up or face punishment.
Police are reportedly using devices they say can detect the illegal phone use that has cropped up in provinces bordering China and Russia.
Sources say the government is restricting the flow of information even more carefully than before in the wake of recent Middle East uprisings.
Citizens in Egypt and now Libya have used Twitter, Skype and cell phones to coordinate protests and expose their governments’ wrongdoings to the world.
Looking to prevent the same from happening in their own borders, the Kim dynasty wants to make sure its citizens aren’t “spreading capitalist ideas and eroding socialism,” according to people familiar with the matter.
It may be a hard battle for the government, as the number of cell phones in North Korea doubled to 450,000 customers in the last year alone.
Increasing mobile use may open up lines of communication for North Koreans, even if it may be illegal. But they are up against considerable obstacles.
Registered users don’t have much leverage, for instance. North Korea has its own cellular network called “Koryolink” that limits and monitors international calls to ensure outside news can’t conflict with the government’s official version.
In order to bypass this system, people who live in Hamkyong and Yangkang are tapping into Chinese and Russian networks to call relatives who have escaped over the borders.
They limit their talks to five minutes — the time it takes to trace a call.
The North Korean government has long restricted radio, Internet and TV networks and also requires people to officially register all tech gear.
Foreigners’ phones are confiscated upon entry and cannot be replaced with rentals during their visits, a law that took effect in January to prevent the spread of news about Middle East uprisings.
Ironically, Egypt’s Orascom Telecom manages North Korea’s official cell phone network.