North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world. The leader of the country, Kim Jong-un, wields absolute power, directing all aspects of government and exerting substantial control over most spheres of everyday life.
In North Korea, most citizens are unable to freely contact people outside the country, or receive incoming international calls except through Chinese mobile phone networks. Most people access the Chinese network through smuggled hardware, referred to in North Korea as “Chinese mobile phones” regardless of the country of manufacture, which cannot be legally traded in North Korea. Only a limited number of people actually own phones with such capabilities.
For North Koreans who do not own a “Chinese mobile phone”, their family and friends who have left the country would only be able to contact them through brokers, paying significant amounts of money. The state also regularly suppresses these brokerage activities.
Subscription to domestic mobile telephone services is costly, and is subject to cumbersome procedures instituted by the government. The state, by making it virtually necessary to pay a sizeable premium and go through “fixers”, who hoard a large number of mobile licenses to get a subscription, fails to protect the right to receive or impart information.
North Korean nationals are not allowed to access international telephone services through the domestic mobile network, and have no access to the World Wide Web. However, foreigners travelling and living in the country are able to do so legally, and are able to access the internet by paying a fee either for a SIM Card or a monthly subscription.
These restrictions do not only prevent North Koreans from telling the world about the injustices that are happening in the country, they also violate the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to freely seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers, among others (ICCPR, Article 19; UDHR, Article 19).
Calls outside the country using Chinese mobile networks often come with a significant risk of surveillance and arbitrary arrest. As the state makes efforts to crack down on the grey market or private trading, surveillance and other forms of obstruction and harassment have increased. State control on accessing foreign media in North Korea also continues to be significant, even though interviewees reported being able to access such sources of information as video discs and USB drives through the grey market. To a lesser extent, they may also access outside information through radio and television provided that they live in areas reached by signal from outside the country and possess smuggled appliances that are capable of receiving these signals. Person-to-person surveillance in the form of neighbourhood groups and other dedicated units remains a widely used method of control.
The state interference in citizens’ privacy and surveillance of their communications do not meet international laws and standards ensuring the right to freedom of expression and the right to be protected against arbitrary or unlawful interference with individuals’ privacy, family, home or correspondence (ICCPR, Article 17; UDHR, Article 12).
Arrests of people accessing outside information, as experienced or witnessed by the interviewees, are often carried out with the purpose of extorting bribes. Many of these arrests are only for the legitimate exercise of the freedom of expression. They would be considered arbitrary in international law, and a violation of the right to liberty and security of person (ICCPR, Article 9).
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- North Koreans are cut off from the rest of the world because they are denied connections. Kim Jong-un must stop keeping citizens in isolation.
- Respect connection is a basic human need
- In North Korea, people cannot call or send an email out of the country, even to family and loved ones! North Koreans must be free to talk.
- North Korean government must allow unhindered flow of information between individuals and groups in the country and the rest of the world.
- North Koreans must be allowed freedom to contact the outside world without fear of punishment or reprisals.