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North Korea requires cellphone users to install invasive surveillance app

North Korea is forcing smartphone users to install an app to use the isolated country’s closed intranet that also allows the government to remotely track their locations and monitor their devices in real time, sources there told RFA.

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 that the app is a massive invasion of privacy, as it enables the Ministry of State Security and other law enforcement agencies to see exactly where they are or if they are using their phones to access forbidden content like movies from South Korea or foreign news.

“At the post office these days, residents are lining up to pay the fee to get their quarterly [license] card,” a resident of Pukchang county, South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Starting this month, cellphone users are forced to install an intranet app called Kwangmyong to get their quarterly cards,” he said.

Citizens are not happy that they must agree to increased surveillance just to use their mobile phones.

“They are reluctant to set it up because they know that they can be watched by the State Security Department at any time through the intranet. But the postal authorities stress that the Central Committee has ordered that they install Kwangmyong on all personal mobile phones. The cards cannot be issued unless Kwangmyong has been installed,” said the source.

“Many of the residents reluctantly installed Kwangmyong on their phones … but some have refused to install the app and have been able to buy the quarterly card on the black market,” he said.

The black-market version of the quarterly communications license is U.S. $12, much more expensive than at the post office, where it costs just 2,840 won ($0.40).

Authorities have been touting the usefulness of the Kwangmyong app, a resident of Ryongchon county, in the northeastern province of North Pyongan, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.  

“They say that installation of Kwangmyong can provide mobile phone users with information about the Rodong Sinmun [newspaper], foreign language education, and cooking techniques,” the source said.

“The real intent is to monitor the residents through the Kwangmyong network installed on people’s mobile phones,” he said.

Kwangmyong even tracks how 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 the users from that moment on. It can check when the users watched South Korean movies and how many times they read or downloaded illegal materials from abroad. It provides real-time monitoring,” he said.

Because the North Korean intranet is not connected to the global internet, the illegal materials must be passed around from person to person on physical media like USB flash drives and easily concealable SD cards. With Kwangmyong installed, the authorities could easily learn that users viewed illicit material.

“For this reason, many residents had been using their mobile phones without installing access to the intranet. But now, the post offices sell the quarterly cards only after they have installed it,” he said. 

“They are accusing the authorities of using the intranet network as a surveillance tool,” he said.

Another way that mobile phone users can avoid surveillance is to use a mobile phone smuggled from China, the second source said.

These phones are illegal, but can access the Chinese network in areas close to the border. They are also not registered with North Korean authorities, so it is not necessary to purchase quarterly communications licenses.

A 2019 report by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea described in detail how the government was able at that time to monitor cellphone activity and file sharing.

The report said that all North Korean smartphones were required to have an application called “Red Flag” that kept a log of webpages visited by users and randomly took screenshots of their phones. Those could be viewed but not deleted with another app called “Trace Viewer.”

“The system is sinister in its simplicity. It reminds users that everything they do on the device can be recorded and later viewed by officials, even if it does not take place online. As such, it insidiously forces North Koreans to self-censor in fear of a device check that might never happen,” the report said.

Kwangmyong appears to have eliminated the need for a device check, as it allows remote monitoring through the intranet.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.