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North Korea cracks down on unregistered laptops and tablets

North Korean authorities are cracking down on people who use unregistered laptops and tablets to keep them from watching foreign “anti-socialist” videos, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Those caught with unregistered electronic devices will be punished as a spy, a resident of Ryanggang province told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“From now on, laptops and tablets that are not registered with the government will be punished at the same level as with possession of small radios,” the resident said. “If you are caught secretly carrying a small radio, you will be punished as a spy, regardless of the reason.”

The punishment awaiting those who might be caught wasn’t immediately clear, but RFA has reported various punishments for people caught consuming foreign media, including execution.

Recent investigations into people who were found guilty of “anti-socialist acts” revealed that they were exposed to foreign media through the devices, he said. 

In recent years, memory sticks and SD cards containing South Korean and Western movies, TV shows and music have been smuggled into the country, usually from China, and secretly passed along from person to person.

Authorities are taking the step because efforts to stop foreign media from flowing into the country have been ineffective despite serious punishments, the resident said. 

“Starting in 2020, there were very strong demands to voluntarily hand over South Korean movies, music, and illegal publications to judicial authorities, but no one actually did so voluntarily,” he said.

“Cracking down on South Korean movies, music, and illegal publications will not be easy because they are easy to hide, but now laptops and tablets that can secretly play such materials are being targeted.”

Streamlined process

It’s the latest bid to exercise complete control over what types of information the public can access.

The Ministry of Social Security ordered the head of every neighborhood watch unit to go to all the houses in the neighborhood to deliver orders that all laptops and tablets must be registered, and to receive a signature confirming that the resident has read and understood it.

Because the government wants everyone to register their devices, the registration process has been streamlined, a second Ryanggang province resident said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“In the past, desktop computers, laptops, and tablets were taken directly to the city and county social security department and post offices to be registered,” the resident said. 

“Now …  you can go to the head of the neighborhood-watch unit and write down the date you came into possession of the computer, the route by which you took possession of it, the model, and the year it was produced.”

About one-third of all households in most North Korean cities have tablets and laptops, even if they are older models, a former North Korean who escaped North Korea and settled in South Korea at the end of 2019, who requested anonymity for personal safety, told RFA.

RFA was not able to confirm the exact percentage of North Korean residents who own unregistered laptops and tablets.  

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.