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Cell Phones Providing Valuable Peek Into N. Korea

Posted January. 13, 2010 08:09,   


South Korean civic organizations related to North Korea have used cell phones to break major news stories on the North, such as its currency revaluation and the outbreak of swine flu there.

Information that the South Korean government says it cannot confirm is broadcast live on the homepages of such organizations. Mobile phones make this possible.

Among more than 18,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, a few can use mobile phones to find out what is happening in the reclusive country.

Calling a cell phone in North Korea from South Korea is impossible, but not for handsets in China.

North Koreans began using mobile phones as recently as 10 years ago. Chinese smugglers introduced them to the North to contact North Korean counterparts.

The number of North Korean defectors in South Korea is increasing, and so they use cell phones to contact their relatives in North Korea.

Handsets are used to make appointments and payments and to trade goods. Even South Korean pastors are using cell phones to give sermons to people in North Korea.

If cell phones connected to the North are linked to the South via the Internet, this provides valuable information unobtainable through traditional media. Competition for breaking news is expected among South Korean civic groups related to North Korea.

Pyongyang seems well aware of the negative impact it could suffer from cell phones and communication by North Koreans with people in South Korea. To curb this, North Korea several years ago purchased dozens of radio wave-detecting vehicles for one million dollars each from Germany and handheld devices from China.

Therefore, calling someone in North Korea for more than one minute is risky. To circumvent government control, North Koreans repeatedly turn their cell phones on and off and call on mountains, where the surveillance vehicles cannot go. Long calls are available in rural areas, however.

Those caught using cell phones are subject to harsh punishment, such as the death penalty. China has also reportedly set up systems in border areas with North Korea to wiretap international calls, but whether Beijing shares wiretapped information with Pyongyang remains unknown.