>> Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times
Published: 2018-12-18 23:12:31 BdST
North Korea on Tuesday warned against the disruptive influence it said smartphones could have on its isolated population, as the devices have begun to expose young people in particular to information and trends from the outside world.
In the hermetically sealed North, South Korean officials estimate that the number of mobile phones has risen to 6 million since 2008, when cellular phone service began as a joint venture between the Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom and the North’s communication ministry. The country has a population of 25 million.
On Tuesday, the North’s main state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published an article listing what it called “negative repercussions” from the introduction of smartphones in schools around the world, including the use of phones during classes, cheating during exams and the circulation of pornographic material.
“This proves that mobile phones have become an avenue to instil students with unhealthy ideology,” it said. “Most educators and parents around the world believe that various corrupt and reactionary cultures spreading through mobile phones are confusing students as they shape their lives’ values.”
“More serious is the fact that erotic messages, novels and video files, as well as electronic games with violent content, are spreading unlimited through mobile phones,” the article said.
The article did not say what actions, if any, North Korea planned to take.
With smartphones proliferating, North Korean authorities have struggled to maintain their tight control over what information the population receives, even as the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has helped to encourage the use of the devices, according to North Korean defectors and South Korean officials.
North Korea still walls off its computers and smartphones from global communications networks, including the internet, and rigs all radio and TV sets so they can receive only propaganda-filled government broadcasts. Such information control is seen as key to maintaining Kim’s grip on totalitarian power and the personality cult surrounding his family, which has ruled the North since its founding at the end of World War II.
Nevertheless, North Koreans have begun using their phones to watch outside entertainment smuggled in from China, including South Korean TV dramas. The files are shared between smartphones and other mobile devices through tiny memory chips, or the wireless data-exchange technology Bluetooth.
Speaking to Parliament last month, South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, said young North Koreans were circulating video clips of BTS, a famous boy band from South Korea.
In North Korea, where there is no freedom of movement for ordinary people and few have cars or access to landline telephones, mobile phones have been a novel new way for people to connect with each other. They have become both status symbols for the elite and essential tools for a nascent class of traders, who use them to exchange information on prices and coordinate shipments between the markets that have sprung up under Kim, according to defectors.
Mobile phones have also become an important revenue source for Kim’s government. State-owned companies sell various rebranded Chinese mobile phones, or devices assembled in the North using foreign components, for $100 to $300 apiece. Kim himself has been shown in state media with a smartphone and inspecting a phone-assembly factory, as he champions the development of science and technology as a means of reviving the North’s moribund economy.
But Kim’s government has also recently begun blocking North Korean smartphones’ Bluetooth capabilities to prevent file sharing. It is also installing software in smartphones that makes it difficult to open outside files and enables authorities to track what users have been watching, according to defectors and South Korean officials.
North Korea is also cracking down on the use of mobile phones smuggled from China to gain access to the internet and global telephone networks.
When used near the Chinese border, such phones can connect to Chinese mobile networks. North Koreans use them to coordinate smuggling operations across the border and exchange text messages and even video files, as well as voice calls, with relatives who have fled to South Korea.
© 2018 New York Times News Service