How Chinese surveillance technology is helping North Korea keep its citizens in line

The North is putting a lot of resources and effort into developing technology and algorithms for surveillance, but it is “overly relying on imported Chinese technology” for devices such as mobile phones and security cameras, Williams told reporters at a press briefing in Seoul on Monday.

According to Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, trade between China and North Korea reached US$1.03 billion in 2022, up 125 percent from the previous year.

Photos on Chinese social media taken along China’s border with North Korea showed television cameras mounted on North Korean guard posts. The devices were installed during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, when Pyongyang was building a second layer of security fences to prevent the spread of the virus.

The equipment, Williams said, was useful for stopping illegal border crossings and monitoring guards who look the other way and allow people to cross the border in exchange for bribes.

“This explains why the northern border is so tightly closed,” he said, adding that security forces were being monitored.

Martyn Williams speaks about North Korea’s technology development during a press conference in Seoul on May 13. Photo: EPA-EFE

North Korea banned tourists, expelled diplomats and severely restricted border traffic and trade under its zero-Covid policy before allowing citizens staying abroad to return home, in line with the easing of the pandemic restrictions last summer worldwide.

Human Rights Watch said in a report titled “North Korea: Sealing the China border worsens the crisis” and released in March that the closure worsened the already dire humanitarian and human rights situation in the country of 26 million people .

In addition to surveillance cameras, the North has developed digital facial recognition systems that would tell the state “who is in a certain place at a certain time,” Williams said.

It is also working on Internet protocol television that could tell the government if someone is home based on the activity of TV sets, providing data on programs watched or ignored.

Authorities will “be able to find out who didn’t watch Kim Jong Un’s speech last night and decided to change the channel when it came on,” he said, in what a dangerous display of disloyalty to the leader of the Stalinist state.

In a report published last month titled “Digital Surveillance in North Korea: Towards a Digital Panopticom State,” Williams and Natalia Slavney of the US-based Stimson Center said Pyongyang was building surveillance capabilities that ” cover different facets of public and private life. ”.

North Korea imported most of its phones from China – its economic lifeline – before launching the Arirang, Pyongyang’s first smartphone, in 2013.

The country has an estimated 7 million mobile phone users. Kim’s government also bought cheap second-hand Huawei telecommunications equipment to upgrade existing 3G networks to a 4G category, Daily NK said last year.

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Digital transformation in North Korea could provide more opportunities for its citizens, but it “also increases the risks associated with the North Korean state’s growing digital footprint and ability to expand surveillance of people’s lives” , Williams and Slavney said in the report.

North Koreans are already among the most tightly controlled and monitored people in the world, although the state is not yet all-seeing.

Small spaces exist where North Koreans can engage in illegal business activities, consume foreign media, and privately criticize the government, and if caught, people can often offer bribes to avoid serious punishment.

Citizens in North Korea, which ranks 172nd out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index, “cannot lead a life in the country unless he or she bribes his or her way,” the United Nations said in a 2019 report that Pyongyang dismissed as “politically motivated.”

“The continued adoption of digital technology threatens to erase many of these spaces. “A combination of the heavy state control exerted by North Korea and pervasive digital surveillance, such as that in China, could wipe out all but the smallest freedoms for the North Korean people,” said the report published on 38 North , a website of the Stimson Center.

The study’s key findings state that research into biometric technology has been ongoing for decades, evolving from fingerprint recognition in the late 1990s to more advanced mechanisms such as facial and license plate recognition.

The latest version of North Korea’s National Identification (ID) card comes in a smart card format. The renewal of the document requires citizens to provide fingerprints, have a photo taken and, according to one report, undergo a blood test.

As a result, almost every North Korean citizen surveyed in the report said the state had collected their fingerprint data.

How the biometric information is stored and accessed is unclear, but the ID card process means the government owns the data to build a biometric database of all citizens, the study found.

However, the “abysmal” electricity supply situation in the country would pose a major stumbling block to the spread of digital surveillance technology, the report said.

North Korea continued to rely heavily on its “highly effective” human intelligence networks built through decades of snooping on citizens, including the infamous Inminban neighborhood watch system, Williams said.

The strategy, rolled out in the 1960s, focused on women participating in community activities such as cleaning work, where members consisted of multiple households and kept an eye on each other.