Kim Jong Un on a field phone with lackeys in tow. Image: Facebook/Aksyon

Recent reports of a crackdown on North Korean mobile phone users who make international calls worried Asia Times.

Would this put an end to the previously successful strategy used by Osaka-based AsiaPress and Seoul-based Daily NK to find out what’s going on in a country whose leaders are determined to keep the news from moving either in or out?

We asked Jiro Ishimaru, editor and publisher of AsiaPress and its North Korea news service, Rimjingang. His short answer: The crackdown has not stopped his “partners” – intrepid people inside North Korea who use cell phones to report anonymously on the news there.

“Starting from the latter part of last year, the North Korean government intensified the control of China-made cell phones connected with the Chinese network system along the border area,” Ishimaru said.

“What the authorities wanted to convey to the people was, ‘We have new devices that can tap every little conversation used by Chinese cell phone holders.’ Their aim was to create fear among the people. According to my partners, what they do is to go around with small-sized radio detection devices 24 hours a day to check if they can detect any radio wave.”

Another method is to use a jamming device, “which is making the connection much worse than before.” 

But that has not stopped the reporting. “My partners inside North Korea are extremely careful about the government activities,” Ishimaru said. “Their communication with us is less frequent, but they continue their work and keep sending us internal documents.”

A North Korean woman using a cell phone while walking with a man in Wonsan, North Korea. Photo: AFP

His reporters, some of whom he first met when they were traveling outside North Korea, are North Korean citizens. Any new recruit receives a Chinese smartphone and training in journalism before starting work.

If those phones’ users are close to the border and to the cellular towers on the Chinese side, they can make international calls.

In American English slang the word “burners” refers to cheap, unregistered, readily disposable prepaid phones of the sort that drug deaders value for the way they permit disguising users’ identities.

Ishimaru used a Japanese term, tobashi keitai, which similarly means a cell phone one can readily “dump,” to refer to phones that North Koreans for a while found it fairly easy to buy or borrow and use under names other than their own.

That availability produced far more freedom of communication than authorities were comfortable with, Ishimaru said. After Kim Jong Un took power, upon his father Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, controls progressively strengthened.

“Now there are ‘cellphone checkpoints’ set up where authorities stop people, look into their devices to check the digital contents, identify the people who originally contracted for service and trace the phone users,” Ishimaru said.

Speaking of phones that don’t have your name attached to them and that you can “dump” after use, a number of North Koreans in the China-North Korea border region are running cell phone rental businesses. That’s according to Daily NK, which like Asia Press gets much of its news via cell phone from people inside North Korea. 

“As more and more people are trying to do business with China, Chinese cellphone ‘renters’ have been making money these days,” Daily NK quoted a North Pyongan Province-based source as saying. “Many people seek out such lenders to make phone calls to South Korea, too.

North Koreans with cellphones in a file photo. Photo: Wikipedia

“‘Cross-border traders have long allowed others to borrow their Chinese cellphones, but ‘rental services’ for the phones only started about three to four years ago,” the source said.

One inhibiting recent factor for the rental business recently has been a closer watch that authorities have placed on brokers who handle international money transfers to North Koreans – and who, as a side job, rent out their phones.

One broker was banished with her family to a farm “after making frequent calls to both South Korea and China while managing remittances from defectors in those countries,” Daily NK reported in another story, quoting an unnamed source in North Hamgyong Province. 

“The broker’s banishment is likely aimed at instilling fear among the population, that engaging in any activities relating to defectors will lead to punishment,” Daily NK said. 

“According to the source, many brokers have chosen to turn off their Chinese mobile phones, which has made it more difficult for people to use rental phones to make international calls. 

“‘Brokers have made a good deal of money renting out their phones to people to make international calls, but the atmosphere is too frightening to do that nowadays,’ the source said. “Some people who were happy to lend their phones even as recently as last month are now reluctant to do so.”

Still, Ishimaru of AsiaPress said his undercover reporters are undeterred. They “know very well what’s going on,” he said.