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North Koreans are risking imprisonment for treason by using banned cellphones to call loved ones who escaped to the outside world, a human rights group said Tuesday.
The country remains one of the most isolated nations on the planet, and its phone and internet networks do not reach beyond its borders, except for visiting foreigners.
However, according to a report by Amnesty International published Tuesday, some North Koreans have been able to use illegally imported cell phones to call their friends and relatives who have escaped the country.
Most of these phones come from China but all are referred to as "Chinese cell phones" regardless of their origin. North Koreans are able to use these phones near the border, where they can connect to Chinese cell phone networks, according to the report.
The most common way to do this is to employ a broker to set up the call or by bribing border soldiers to deliver a cell phone and SIM card — both of which involve costs of hundreds of dollars.
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People attempting to contact loved ones aboard often try to avoid detection by engaging in clandestine tactics, including using pseudonyms and traveling to remote mountainous areas, Amnesty said.
While speaking to someone abroad is not itself illegal under North Korean law, the private trade of foreign communications devices is banned. Anyone using a Chinese cellphone risks being charged with treason and sent to one of the country's dreaded political prison camps.
The country's dictator, Kim Jong Un, has boosted his country's surveillance technology in recent years in an apparent bid to block these foreign calls.
Amnesty said the aim of this is twofold — firstly, to stop North Koreans "from learning about the situation outside of their country" and secondly to obscure "the extent of human rights violations taking place in the country to the external world."
During a speech in February 2014, Kim said his country needed to "take initiatives to reduce to ashes imperialist ideological and cultural infiltration." He also called for an increase in "mosquito nets" — presumably referring to surveillance technology — "to stop the viruses of capitalist ideology from infiltrating our border."
There are no private media companies in North Korea and the state owns and controls all telecommunications, postal and broadcasting services.
Specialists told Amnesty that North Korean officials had ramped up efforts to monitor and block calls, employing "state-of-the-art surveillance devices"
“To maintain their absolute and systematic control, the North Korean authorities are striking back against people using mobile phones to contact family abroad," said Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.