North Korea has found, as has China, Russia and other dictatorships, that cell phones are a serious threat. The latest example is a new North Korean decree declaring use of cell phone messaging apps like Kakao Talk, Line, and WeChat to be a capital crime. Those caught using these apps on Chinese cell phones may be executed. The reason is that these apps enable users near the border to send messages so quickly, and then hang up, that even the high-tech cell phone detectors used by the border guards and secret police, cannot catch the culprits.
North Korea has imported, at great expense, another generation of German cell phone detection and jamming equipment. This allows the secret police to better detect illegal cell phone use along the Chinese border. The jammers block the use of Chinese cell phone service along the border while the new detectors make it easier to catch those illegally using Chinese cell phones in the many areas where the jammers are not active.
North Korea does not have much foreign currency and must pay extra to smuggle in equipment that international embargoes prohibit. North Korea tried using Chinese jammers but found that the much more expensive German ones were superior to such an extent that they were worth the higher cost. Chinese equipment is not only cheaper but did not have to be smuggled in and since Chins is North Koreas’ largest trading partner there is plenty of Chinese currency to pay for them. But the North Korean government is so obsessed with North Koreans using Chinese cell phone service that the extra cost is seen as justified.
One major reason for this obsession is the many North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. These refugees use Chinese cell phone service along the North Korea/China border to connect with current North Korea friends and family and give convincing proof that life is much better outside North Korea. To the North Korean government this is tantamount to organizing a revolution against the Kim dynasty and the police state that keeps the Kim family in power.
North Koreans using Chinese cell phones on the border (where Chinese cell towers provide a good signal for several kilometers into North Korea) has become increasingly dangerous. In 2007 North Korean police began using an earlier generation of German cell phone signal detectors to find and arrest those illegally using cell phones up there. Because it is possible to get a signal from a Chinese cell tower there, the government sees this as a major security leak. In some cases it is, mostly its used to stay in touch with family, friends and business associates in China and elsewhere.
People can say whatever they want using Chinese cell phone service, and the government is determined to stop this dangerous outbreak of free speech. There are believed to be dozens of the German detectors currently in use, with teams (consisting of several dozen secret police agents) moving through neighborhoods and hauling away those found with cell phones. The new detectors are small enough to fit in a pocket, so the secret police teams are fairly inconspicuous. The cell phone users are usually engaged in commercial activities, or simply communicating with friends and family but any unauthorized communications is considered treason.
Some North Koreans have established a lucrative business by selling North Koreans access to relatives in China, South Korea or elsewhere, via calls on these phones. The government wants to stop all of this. So far, the effort has been unsuccessful, even though punishment for illegal cell phone use has been increased year by year.
Cell phones were only legalized for all North Koreans in 2011 and demand for them has been spectacular. Chinese firms supply most of these legal phones and report that cell phone exports to North Korea in 2014 were worth $83 million, which was double 2013 sales. Chinese smart phones often sell for less than $100. The government sells the phones at a large markup, so it makes sense to import as many as it can. By early 2016 it is believed there are over three million legal cell phones in North Korea. There are over 100,000 illegal ones from China that can be used near the Chinese to call outside North Korea.