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North Korea orders the confiscation of all mobile phones owned by Russia-based employees

North Korean workers wait for a flight to Pyongyang at Vladivostok airport, Russia, in December 2019. (Courtesy of Kang Dong Wan, professor at Dong-A University)

The North Korean government has ordered the seizure of all mobile phones owned by workers in Russia, Daily NK has learned. As the North steps up its surveillance and control of workers there, it is also working with Russia to prevent defections.

The North Korean consulate in Russia received orders (from the North Korean government) at the end of April to confiscate unauthorized mobile phones in the possession of employees there,” a source in Russia told Daily NK on April 26, on condition of anonymity.

According to the source, North Korean workers usually have colleagues from Russia or other countries who help them purchase mobile phones for use during their stay in the country.

In Russia, mobile phones that can make calls as well as go online are readily available in markets and shops and can be used as long as one has a SIM card.

While North Korean workers abroad are not allowed to have personal cell phones, most managers had looked the other way and treated phone ownership as routine behavior.

“Even abroad, North Korean workers have no freedom of movement and have to work all day. The only thing they can look forward to is loading YouTube on a mobile phone with Internet access to watch the news or South Korean movies, TV shows and variety programs,” a defector working in Russia told Daily NK.

Some North Korean overseas workers have attempted to defect after using their cellphones to access overseas news programs about North Korea that they could not watch at home and learning that the regime’s propaganda was a lie. Mobile phones are also a crucial tool for contacting the brokers who help them defect.

Given their understanding of these factors, North Korean authorities appear to have ordered the total seizure of mobile phones informally owned by foreign workers to prevent these workers from becoming disloyal to the regime and its ideology.

Workers are also facing more restrictions on movement

The source also said Russian guards have recently been seen standing guard at construction sites where North Koreans work.

“North Korean workers used to be allowed to visit nearby markets or restaurants on Sundays, their day off. But they are no longer even allowed to leave the workplace. Russian security officers patrol the area and ensure that North Korean workers do not leave for a moment,” the source said.

As North Korea and Russia improve ties, the two countries appear to be working more closely than ever on projects aimed at monitoring and controlling North Korean workers in Russia.

“North Korea views defection attempts by workers in Russia as a serious issue. It is tightening controls to ensure that defections do not occur under any circumstances and has made arrangements with Russian police and intelligence services to arrest and immediately contact anyone caught leaving their workplace or defecting with the North Korean State Security Service,” the source said.

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Daily NK works with a network of sources from North Korea, China and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

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