“I have used calls, texts and even Bluetooth. I have also watched South Korean video clips on my cell phone. There were no file type limits on smartphones, while only MP4, 3GP files were the only file types that could be played on regular cell phones such as the folder phones. .txt files can be used on any mobile phones,” said a North Korean escapee.

Despite network controls, many of the mobile phones now available in North Korea are powerful devices compared with what was previously available in North Korea. As more sophisticated smartphones became available, phone owners were able to utilize their phones’ convenient integrated platforms for receiving, sharing and consuming a variety of different media types.  

Users are permitted to access nothing but state-approved services. Phones and computers connect to a closed intranet that includes some of the features of the Internet, such as websites and video streaming, but with none of the freedom. While reports from the country indicate that the number and variety of websites and services is expanding, nothing exists beyond state-sanctioned services and access to the Internet is blocked. The smartphone controls are accomplished with a customized version of the open-source Android operating system that runs on every North Korean smartphone. It includes several restrictions not found on phones in the rest of the world.

Running in the background of every Android tablet and smartphone in North Korea is a program called “Red Flag.” The software logs every page a user visits with the web browser and takes screenshots at random intervals during use of a tablet or phone. The system is sinister in its simplicity. It reminds users that everything they do on the device can be recorded and later viewed by officials, even if it does not take place online. As such, it insidiously forces North Koreans to self-censor in fear of a device check that might never happen.

There is a small hacking culture inside North Korea. It had previously been assumed that North Koreans, lacking access to the Internet, would find it difficult to gain the knowledge to hack Android smartphones but that is not the case. The techniques they developed were extremely specific to the nature of North Korean devices and software in their purpose and execution. Specific prohibition against “illegally installing a phone manipulation program.” The existence of this specific wording would imply it is happening at a scale where authorities are aware and potentially concerned.

Photos by Stephen Gladieu
Owner of SCHOOL GALLERY, Paris: ARTCO GALLERY, Germany, Cape Town, Joshua Tree