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North Korea rolls out new software to keep tabs on its officials in China

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a military parade on April 15, 2017. North Korean officials have sought urgent help from international contacts to increase coronavirus testing. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
October 01, 2022

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

North Korea is requiring trade officials dispatched to China to install invasive surveillance software on their smartphones and computers to allow the government to track their phone calls and restrict their online access, sources in China told RFA.

Trade officials must install the software, called “Secure Shield” on their phones, so that the government can see who they are calling. A program called “Hangro” monitors their computer use.

“Trade officials must visit the North Korean consulate in Shenyang, install the newly developed software on their cellphones, and receive a memory storage device that contains the software for computers,” a source with North Korea connections in the northeastern Chinese city told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

The order went out last month to all the North Korean trade officials in the three northeastern Chinese provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, according to the source.

“Once you install the software, its name appears on the main screen. Then a message shows up in the middle of the screen, saying ‘Your cellphone is secured,’” said the source. 

“Along with the mobile phone identification number, there is an indication that the phone numbers and call details connected to the phone are being detected in real time,” the source explained.

RFA reported in July that smartphone users who want to access North Korea’s closed intranet had to install an app that allows the Ministry of State Security to see where they have been, what websites they browsed, and whether they downloaded, watched or listened to illegal foreign media.

The expansion of surveillance of officials outside the country is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced mandatory in-person meetings to move online, where it is thought to be harder to monitor the loyalty of dispatched personnel.

North Korea previously attempted to use surveillance software outside its borders in 2020, according to the source.

“There was a conversion problem in the software because it was made for the North Korean government by a foreign developer, so it didn’t work properly,” the source said. 

“The reason for the new software is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now ideological learning sessions and home country meetings for the trade officials are conducted through self-learning and email communication, so the authorities believe that the changes have weakened loyalty to the party among the trade officials,” the source said.

In Dandong, which lies just across the Yalu River border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, every trade official had to go to the consulate for a phone inspection, a North Korea-related source there told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

They were instructed to install the software on their computers, the second source said.

“The newly developed computer startup program detects the internet connection status in real time and opens a channel to use only North Korean e-mail. You can download instructions from Pyongyang, and access lecture materials and study materials only through North Korean e-mail,” the second source said.

“The software, called ‘Hangro,’ disables external emails from China and the rest of the world. It has become the only email channel where messages can be exchanged between the North Korean authorities and the company,” said the second source. 

“North Korean trading companies must pay $350 to the Shenyang consulate to use Hangro,” the second source said.

“The trade officials are complaining saying that the authorities do not trust them and are forcing them to install software on their phones and computers that make conducting business uncomfortable and difficult.”