The warning came from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean ruler who sees his isolated nation, just across the border from this busy Chinese trading town, as under siege. The attack, he said, must be stopped.
“We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration,” Kim said in an October speech at the headquarters of his immensely powerful internal security service. Kim, who became North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father a year ago, called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush those hostile elements.”
Over the past year, Kim has intensified a border crackdown that has attempted to seal the once-porous 880-mile frontier with China, smugglers and analysts say, trying to hold back the onslaught.
The assault that he fears? It’s being waged with cheap devices rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, and with smuggled mobile phones that — if you can get a Chinese signal along the border – can call the outside world.
In North Korea, a country where international phone calls and internet connections exist only for a tiny fraction of a tiny elite, and radios and other devices must be permanently preset to receive only state broadcasts, it’s other media they crave.
Today, changing technologies, ambitious smugglers and well-funded critics of Pyongyang mean that everything from DVDs to illegal Chinese cellphones to Korean-language radio news broadcasts funded by the U.S. government make their way into North Korea. Their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world and threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime.
Kim’s crackdown has been largely aimed at the border with China, long the route for much of the outside information making its way into North Korea, as well as for refugees trying to get out.
Entire border security units have been replaced inside North Korea, fences have been strengthened and punishments ramped up for anyone caught trying to get through, according to smugglers, analysts and Chinese with family ties across the border. Meanwhile, special security units have been formed to seek out any contraband information or technology that Pyongyang sees as a threat.
“There has definitely been a push to roll back the tide of the flow of information,” said Nat Kretchun, associate director of an international consulting group InterMedia, which released a report earlier this year about information flow into North Korea, based on surveys of hundreds of recent North Korean defectors. The study was commissioned by the U.S. State Department.