North Korea: Connection denied

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© ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Connection is a basic human need. We are campaigning for North Koreans to be able to access information and freely make connections, including with family and friends outside the country.

Your parents are missing and you have no way of finding out where they are.

When state agents pay you a sudden visit a month later, it’s to inform you that your parents are dead, having been shot while trying to leave the country. Unable to call outside the country, and no access to the internet or other sources of information outside the country, there’s little you can do but accept the news.

 

Choi Hyun-joon, fled North Korea
It was 8 months before I could contact my children; I had no way of ensuring their well-being.
© Amnesty International
Choi Hyun-joon
Because I couldn’t phone them, I had no way of knowing if they were imprisoned or had starved to death. It was living hell.
Choi Ji-woo, a North Korean living in Seoul, South Korea Choi Ji-woo, a North Korean living in Seoul, South Korea
© Amnesty International
Choi Ji-woo, a North Korean living in Seoul, South Korea. Choi Ji-woo, a North Korean living in Seoul, South Korea.
© Amnesty International

The Long Road to a Phone Call

A year later, a stranger knocks on your door. He bears what he claims is a letter from your parents: they have successfully left the country and are alive! And they want to speak to you.

But there is a catch. To speak to them, you will have to travel hundreds of kilometres to the border to make an international phone call using a smuggled phone, illegally tapping into Chinese phone networks. You will traverse mountains on foot in order to circumvent restricted areas, under the cover of night. There is intense surveillance and at every moment, you run the risk of getting caught by the authorities.

Sometimes we walked all night to cross a mountain. We had to move at night, not during day. We were constantly pricked and scraped by branches.
Choi Ji-woo had to travel hundreds of kilometres in order to make a call to her father

An outrageous predicament in our ultra-connected world? This is a modern day scenario that Choi Ji-woo actually faced. North Koreans like her face significant risks attempting to establish any connection outside what remains one of the most isolated countries in the world.

Pictured: Choi Ji-woo, a North Korean living in Seoul, South Korea

© Amnesty International

Hear their story

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A street at dusk in Pyongyang, North Korea. A street at dusk in Pyongyang, North Korea.
© AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
Choi Hyun-joon, a North Korean living in South Korea, speaks on a mobile phone in downtown Seoul Choi Hyun-joon, a North Korean living in South Korea, speaks on a mobile phone in downtown Seoul
© Amnesty International

Cut Off From The World

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wields absolute power over government and most of everyday life. This translates into tight controls over communication and the flow of information, both in and out of the country.

Without access to Chinese mobile phones, smuggled in and privately traded on the grey market, North Koreans have little means to contact family and friends who have left the country. Even an attempt to place a prohibited call will put them at risk of surveillance and arrest by the authorities. 

The impact of the control on communications is not just restricted to those left behind. North Koreans who have left the country can call back only by paying significant amounts of money for the services of brokers, themselves subject to regular crackdowns.

For over 40 years (in North Korea), I didn’t live as a civilized being. We lived like animals.
Choi Hyun-joon, left North Korea and now living in Seoul, South Korea

Aside from phone calls, North Koreans also have no access to the internet, other than a walled-off network that allows access only to domestic websites and emails. Access to foreign media and outside sources of information is also limited, except when obtained through the grey market. 

Pictured: Choi Hyun-joon 

Mobile Phone Penetration in North Korea

94%

mobile network coverage

3 MILLION

subscribers to domestic mobile phone service

0

number of ordinary subscribers who can call internationally using these phones

© Amnesty International

What Are We Calling For? 

The government of North Korea needs to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of North Koreans to freedom of expression.

We are calling on North Korea to allow its nationals to freely communicate and access information regardless of borders and without the fear of reprisals. Kim Jong-un must allow North Koreans to connect with the outside world. Join our call.

Five Ways North Korea Restricts Access to Outside Information

1. The vast majority of North Koreans have no access to the internet as we know it. The domestic intranet, known as the kwangmyong, only allows access to domestic websites and email

2. Only foreigners are able to obtain SIM cards at Pyongyang airport to make international phone calls and access the global internet

3. North Korea’s State Security Department has a branch -- “Bureau 27”-- that specializes in covert intelligence, including using sophisticated equipment to detect mobile phone frequencies

4. North Koreans caught using smuggled mobile phones to call out of the country risk being sent to political prison camps or other detention facilities

5. Households face strict restrictions on the types of appliances they can own to prevent those near the country’s shared borders with South Korea, China and Russia from picking up foreign TV and radio signals

© AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan