North Korea is forcing smartphone users to install an app to use the isolated country’s closed intranet, but the app also allows the government to remotely track their location and monitor their devices in real time, sources said. in FRG.
The Kwangmyong app connects users to a corner of the intranet where they can access their subscription to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper and other educational and informational services.
But some North Koreans say the app is a massive invasion of privacy because it allows the Ministry of State Security and other law enforcement agencies to see exactly where they are. or if they use their phone to access banned content like movies from South Korea. or foreign news.
“At the post office these days, locals line up to pay the fee to get their quarterly [license] map,” a resident of Pukchang County, South Pyongan Province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korea Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Starting this month, mobile phone users are forced to install an intranet app called Kwangmyong to get their quarterly cards,” he said.
Citizens are not happy to have to accept increased surveillance just to use their mobile phones.
“They hesitate to set it up because they know that they can be monitored at any time by State Security via the intranet. But the postal authorities point out that the Central Committee ordered them to install Kwangmyong on all personal cell phones. Cards can only be issued if Kwangmyong has been installed,” the source said.
“Many locals reluctantly installed Kwangmyong on their phones…but some refused to install the app and were able to buy the quarterly card on the black market,” he said.
The black market version of the quarterly communication license costs 12 US dollars, much more expensive than at the post office, where it costs only 2,840 won (0.40 dollars).
Authorities have touted the app’s usefulness Kwangmyong, a resident of Ryongchon County in the northeastern province of North Pyongan, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“They say the Kwangmyong facility can provide mobile phone users with information about the Rodong Sinmun [newspaper]teaching foreign languages and cooking techniques,” the source said.
“The real intention is to monitor residents through the Kwangmyong network installed on people’s cellphones,” he said.
Kwangmyong even tracks how the devices are used as media players, according to the source.
“When Kwangmyong… is installed on a personal mobile phone, the Ministry of State Security can monitor users from then on. It can check when users watched South Korean movies and how often they watched or downloaded illegal material from overseas. It provides real-time monitoring,” he said.
Since the North Korean intranet is not connected to the global Internet, illegal documents must be transmitted from person to person on physical media such as easily concealable USB drives and SD cards. With Kwangmyong installed, authorities could easily learn that users viewed illicit material.
“For this reason, many residents used their mobile phones without installing intranet access. But now the post offices only sell the quarterly cards after installing them,” he said.
“They accuse authorities of using the intranet as a surveillance tool,” he said.
Another way cellphone users avoid surveillance is to use a cellphone smuggled from China, the second source said.
These phones are illegal, but can access the Chinese network in areas near the border. They are also not registered with North Korean authorities, so there is no need to purchase quarterly communication licenses.
A 2019 report from the North Korea Human Rights Committee based in Washington describes in detail how the government was able at the time to monitor cell phone activity and file sharing.
The report said all North Korean smartphones were required to have an app called “Red Flag” that kept a log of web pages users visited and randomly took screenshots of their phones. These can be viewed but not deleted with another application called “Trace Viewer”.
“The system is sinister in its simplicity. It reminds users that everything they do on the device can be recorded and viewed later by managers, even if it doesn’t take place online. As such, it insidiously forces North Koreans to self-censor for fear of a device check that may never take place,” the report said.
Kwangmyong seems to have eliminated the need for device verification, as it allows remote monitoring via the intranet.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.