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North Korea orders crackdown on teenagers storing illegal files on smartphones

North Korean teens smartphone (Roman Harak/Flickr)
May 26, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in North Korea have begun a crackdown on teenage culture, targeting teens who store underground pop music and illegal videos on their mobile phones, in an attempt to prevent South Korean trends from gaining more traction, local sources say.

Those caught in the crackdown, which started in late April, will not be simply given detention – their parents and teachers will also face severe punishment, they told RFA.

Though smartphone use is allowed in North Korea, the country’s smartphones all have an application called “Red Flag” running in the background that keeps a log of webpages visited by users and randomly takes screenshots. These can be viewed, but not deleted with another app called “Trace Viewer.”

The screenshots can be checked by authorities at any time, but generally the police only check the phones of people of interest, or make random checks to solicit bribes.

But now under the direction of the Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, the police are targeting teens and ruining their smart phone fun.

“Nowadays it is becoming a trend for teens to carry around North Korean songs made in the South Korean [K-pop] style, videos and books from unknown sources, restricted photos and texts written using South Korean [spelling, vocabulary and slang], on their mobile phones and other devices,” a source in North Pyongan province, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.

“On the Central Committee’s order, authorities have begun to censor mobile phones,” the source said.

According to the source, the crackdown started when random checks on college and high school students revealed the contraband data on many of their smartphones.

“The teenagers’ behavior has been reported to the Central Committee and they’ve ordered nation-wide mobile phone censorship for students,” the source said.

“They think that the kids’ desire to be culturally like South Koreans poses a threat to the system,” the source said.

But the youngsters were given warning.

“The Local Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League organized emergency meetings to prevent young students from spreading the South Korean-like culture using electronic devices, including mobile phones,” the source said, referring to North Korea’s main youth league, modeled after the Soviet Komsomol.

“Many students are anxious because they warned of strong legal punishment for those who are found guilty,” the source added.

The source also said that not only the teens would be punished, but also officials of their schools and leaders of their youth league meetings.

“They must jointly take responsibility. The [teens] are also nervous as they will be subject to punishment during weekly self-criticism sessions,” the source added.

Self-criticism, or saenghwal chonghwa, is a regular act by which the citizens report to the authorities on any shortcoming they might have in loyalty to the state.

The youth league leaders and the authorities have organized inspection groups to regularly check the teens’ devices, according to another source, a resident who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“Students are busy erasing [all the contraband files] from their mobile phones and electronic storage devices,” the second source told RFA Wednesday.

“Young students in Ryanggang province and other areas adjacent to the border [with China] often store illegal data on their mobile phones, because they can easily get South Korean music and dramas from China,” the second source said.

“So now the students are staying up all night trying to erase all the illegal data, because if they are caught from the crackdown, not only they, but also their parents and school officials will be punished.”