DPRK’s Increasingly Vulnerable Regime Desperate to Block Cross-Border Information Flows

The North Korean regime’s construction of a 2-3 layer barbed wire fence along the North Korea-China border. Field photo taken in September 2023.

SEOUL – North Korea has a long history of blocking and suppressing information from the outside world, so after the country finally reopened its borders in the middle of 2023, about three years after the threat of COVID-19 somewhat subsided, the regime’s subsequent attempts to further stem the tide of external information flows have caused concern among North Koreans and others outside the country.

The current situation in North Korea suggests that the external information restrictions of the past few years have reached an unusually high level as the regime takes increasingly harsh measures against citizens accessing external information, which the regime sees as an existential threat.

According to a source inside North Korea who spoke with this writer, the regime in recent years has adopted a new tactic of countering external information, namely “blocking the sources of external information right at the entry point.” 

This tactical change in the regime’s policy didn’t garner much attention from the international media, but it deserves more attention.

Blocking sources of external information at the entry point means blocking the flow of data into North Korea through intranets, communication lines, and wavelengths, or controlling access to certain sites or servers. 

In taking this measure, the regime appears to aim at preventing North Koreans from accessing external information as well as blocking internal information from leaking out.

In this context, the intranet network was also built independently from the international Internet network to prevent the flow of information from the rest of the world. 

While the regime now claims that its initial intention of blocking the flow of external information by controlling the country’s ICT infrastructure has been successful, the stark reality is that external information still finds its way into the country, which is changing the public’s perceptions of the regime and revealing more information about the outside world.

The regime attributed the impact of China’s mobile communication network as one of the main causes of the growing information inflows and outflows in the North Korea-China border area, as well as in-person interactions with Chinese people, including smugglers.

Therefore, the regime has begun taking more intensive measures in recent years to “block the inflow of external information at the entry point” (i.e. the border areas).

The Regime Has Been Cracking Down in Ryanggang Province, Where Information and Defectors Flow Across the Border

The area of greatest concern to the regime is Ryanggang Province due to its geographical advantages of mountainous areas for fleeing defectors to hide and a narrow section of the Yalu River that’s easier to cross into China. 

The provincial capital, Hyesan, is a commercial hub and a porous border area for external information inflows and defection routes.

Since Ryanggang Province has had among the highest number of past and current defection attempts, as well as significant exposure to external information flows due to the direct influence of defectors, the regime has monitored the citizens of Ryanggang more intensively compared to inland provinces.

According to the same source, as a practical measure, on February 27, 2021, Order No. 0023 of the Leader of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) was issued: “On Proceeding with the Construction of Border Barriers.” 

The first areas to be designated were Kim Jong Suk County, Kim Hyong Jik County, Pochon County, Taehongdan County, and Samjiyon City, which are all located in Ryanggang Province and were the so-called “doldrums” with the highest potential for contact with the outside world.

Following Order No. 0023, a number of regional institutions, as well as troops from the North Korean Army’s 7th Corps, were ordered to construct a physical blockade with walls and barbed wire fences as a “buffer zone” in the name of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

It is noteworthy that some key residential areas of North Korea’s border with China are now fenced with two to three layers of barbed wire, people are prohibited from coming and going, and key areas of China’s border with North Korea also have new fences. 

In addition, North Korea has reportedly used the COVID-19 lockdown as an opportunity to conduct raids on a massive scale to detect and incinerate Chinese cell phones. 

Based on reports from an internal source in North Korea, the crackdown consists of severe legal sanctions and public announcements intended to induce confessions. 

Consequently, there were so many victims, and “over 90% of Chinese cell phones were confiscated,” the source added.

The Ongoing Battle Over Information in North Korea

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world, divides the Korean Peninsula roughly along the 38th parallel, and North Korea’s east and west coasts are sealed off by high-voltage wire fences.

In that sense, the recent border fence construction and enhanced border security have effectively put the entire country behind bars.

While the reality on the ground is grim at the moment, on the flip side, it’s a clear sign that the regime feels increasingly insecure due to the people’s growing awareness of the outside world and yearning for freedom.

Shin Yong-geon

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