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North Korea: Regime continues to use harsh measures to block communication and foreign content

January 31, 2024

North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive states, where civic space is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion. It prohibits all organised political opposition, independent media, civil society and trade unions.

In 2023, Human Rights Watch reported that the government continued to maintain extreme and unnecessary measures under the pretext of protecting against the COVID-19 pandemic, with deepened isolation and repression; border, trade and travel restrictions; and strong ideological control. These restrictions severely aggravated the existing food crisis and exacerbated the country’s chronic lack of access to medicines, medical supplies and other necessities.

In December 2023, The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on North Korean human rights for the 19th consecutive year, amid growing woes over the safety of North Korean escapees who were repatriated from China. It was passed by consensus after it was unanimously adopted by the Third Committee handling human rights and social affairs on 15th November 2023.

The resolution noted the persistence of all-pervasive and severe restrictions, including an absolute monopoly on information, and total control over organised social life, further tightened by the COVID-19 prevention measures, both online and offline, on the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

In recent months, the authorities have continued to crack down on individuals who made foreign calls, on unregistered laptops and tablets and ordered harsh punishment for consumers of South Korean cultural content. Authorities had been forcing people to update the operating systems of their phones to prevent the spread of external information and arrest the family members of defectors.


Human Rights Watch in its 2024 annual report stated that the North Korean government does not permit freedom of thought, expression or information. All media is strictly controlled.

Accessing phones, computers, televisions, radios, or media content that is not sanctioned by the government is illegal and considered “anti-socialist behaviour” that is punished, including through the use of torture and forced labour.

The government regularly cracks down on those accessing unsanctioned media. It also jams Chinese mobile phone services at the border and targets for arrest people who communicate with contacts outside the country.

Woman sentenced to three years for calling South Korea

In October 2023, the authorities sentenced a 60-year-old woman from Paegam county to three years in prison for talking on the phone to her daughter who had escaped the country and resettled in South Korea. Another woman, who brokered the phone call, got a year of forced labour and her family was exiled to the remote North Korean countryside.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), the two women were caught by a social security agent when they were coming down from a phone call in the mountains and were interrogated for over a month. The agent searched them and found a Chinese mobile phone, then arrested them.

Authorities crack down on unregistered laptops and tablets

In November 2023, RFA reported that the authorities were cracking down on people who use unregistered laptops and tablets to keep them from watching foreign “anti-socialist” videos.

Those caught with unregistered electronic devices will be punished as a spy. This includes laptops and tablets, as with possession of small radios. There are reportedly various punishments for people caught consuming foreign media, including execution.

In recent years, memory sticks and SD cards containing South Korean and Western movies, TV shows and music have been smuggled into the country, usually from China, and secretly passed along from person to person.

Authorities order harsh punishment for consumers of South Korean cultural content

The Eighth Plenary Session of the Ninth Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) was held at the headquarters of the party's Central Committee from 26th to 30th December 2023.

Around this time, North Korea’s state security agency instructed bureaus around the country to treat the consumption of South Korean television or publications as an act of hostility against the state and to harshly punish violators.

According to the Daily NK, orders given by the Ministry of State Security defined the acts of tuning the television to a South Korean broadcast and acquiring or distributing propaganda publications as acts of hostility against the state, acts that aid the enemy, and reactionary acts. The ministry also ordered that such behaviour be punished more sternly than before.

New OS update for phones prevents sharing of photos and lengthy videos

In December 2023, it was reported that the authorities had been forcing people to update the operating systems (OS) of their phones as part of efforts to prevent the spread of external information.

A source in North Korea told Daily NK on 22nd December 2023 that the government’s efforts to update the OS of the country’s domestically produced smartphones started in June. The source further explained that “phones with the updated operating system don’t allow users to send photos or lengthy videos by text message. Moreover, the digital signature system has been improved so that it is impossible for users to manipulate the operating system, install other systems, or view external banned information.

The new operating system allows government officials to see all the records on people’s phones, including text messages. They can see what a person has uploaded, including any content, or if they have used any programs banned by the state. This has placed smartphones under a total web of surveillance and control.

An even more draconian update is planned for 2024. Going forward, North Korean authorities are planning to eliminate any and all ways phone users can install foreign programs on their phones.


Agents arrest family members of defectors near border

Security agents made several arrests of family members of North Korean defectors living in the China-North Korea border areas of Yanggang Province in late 2023. Authorities in the border areas reportedly kept a close watch on defectors’ families.

A source in Yanggang Province told Daily NK on 24th January 2024 that security agents made a series of arrests of defectors’ family members while they were picking up money sent by their relatives in South Korea for the New Year.

In one instance, security agents barged into their home and confiscated all the cash they found in the house, arrested a member of the family and the remittance broker who transferred the money and took them to the city branch of the Ministry of State Security.

On 10th January 2024, the family member was sentenced to three months of hard labour, while the remittance agent was sentenced to six months.

This was not the only such detention. Local security agents in Hyesan arrested the family member of another defector on 31st December 2023 after he went to collect money from a remittance agent.


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