North Korea requires trade officials posted to China to install invasive surveillance software on their smartphones and computers so the government can track their phone calls and limit their online access, sources in China told RFA.
Trade officials must install software called “Secure Shield” on their phones so the government can see who they’re calling. A program called “Hangro” monitors their computer usage.
“Trade officials must go to the North Korean consulate in Shenyang, install the newly developed software on their mobile phones and receive a storage device containing the software for computers,” a source with North Korea ties in the northeast Chinese city told RFA’s Korean service on condition the anonymity to speak freely.
According to the source, the order went out to all North Korean trade officials in the three northeast Chinese provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang last month.
“Once you install the software, its name will appear on the main screen. Then a message will appear in the middle of the screen that says ‘Your phone is secured,'” the source said.
“Together with the mobile phone identification number, there is an indication that the phone numbers and call details associated with the phone are recognized in real time,” the source explained.
RFA reported in July that smartphone users wanting to access North Korea’s closed intranet had to install an app that allows the Ministry of State Security to see where they’ve been, what websites they’ve browsed and if they’ve found illegal foreign content downloaded, watched or listened to media.
The expansion of surveillance of officers outside the country is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted mandatory face-to-face meetings to be moved online, where it is considered more difficult to monitor the loyalty of posted personnel.
According to the source, North Korea had previously attempted to deploy surveillance software outside its borders in 2020.
“There was a conversion issue in the software because it was made by a foreign developer for the North Korean government, so it wasn’t working properly,” the source said.
“The reason for the new software is the COVID-19 pandemic. Now ideological learning sessions and homeland meetings for the commerce officials are being conducted through self-study and email communication, so the authorities believe the changes have weakened the commerce officials’ loyalty to the party,” the source said.
In Dandong, which is just across the Yalu River border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, every trade official had to go to the consulate for a telephone inspection, a North Korean source there told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
They were instructed to install the software on their computers, the second source said.
“The newly developed computer launcher detects real-time Internet connection status and opens a channel to use only North Korean email. They can download instructions from Pyongyang and access lecture and study materials only through North Korean email,” the second source said.
“The software called ‘Hangro’ disables external emails from China and the rest of the world. It has become the only email channel through which messages can be exchanged between the North Korean authorities and the company,” the second source said.
“North Korean trading companies have to pay $350 to the Shenyang consulate to use Hangro,” the second source said.
“Commerce officials complain that authorities don’t trust them, forcing them to install software on their phones and computers that makes doing business awkward and difficult.”
Translated by Claire Shinoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.