North Korea rolls out new software to monitor its officials in China

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North Korea is demanding trade officials sent to China install invasive surveillance software on their smartphones and computers so that the government can monitor their phone conversations and restrict their online access, sources in China told RFA.

Trade officials must install the software, called “Secure Shield”, on their phones so that the government can see who they are calling. A program called “Hangro” monitors their computer usage.

“Trade officials should visit the North Korean consulate in Shenyang, install the newly developed software on their mobile phones and receive a memory storage device that contains the software for computers,” a source with North Korean connections in the northeastern Chinese city told RFA’s Korean Service . on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

The order went to all North Korean trade officials in China’s three northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang last month, the source said.

“Once you have installed the software, its name will appear on the main screen. Then a message will appear in the center of the screen that reads ‘Your mobile phone is protected’,” the source said.

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“Along with the mobile phone identification number, there is an indication that the phone numbers and call data connected to the phone are being detected in real time,” explains the source.

RFA reported in July that smartphone users who want 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 whether they’ve seen illegal foreign media.

The expansion of oversight of officials outside the country is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced mandatory face-to-face meetings to go online, where it is deemed more difficult to monitor the loyalty of posted staff.

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North Korea has previously attempted to use surveillance software beyond its borders in 2020, according to the source.

“There was a conversion problem in the software because it was made for the North Korean government by a foreign developer, so it didn’t work properly,” the source said.

“The reason for the new software is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, ideological learning sessions and home country meetings for the trade officials are conducted through self-study and email communication, so the authorities believe the changes have weakened party loyalty among trade officials,” the source said.

In Dandong, 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.

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“The newly developed computer launcher detects the Internet connection status in real time and opens a channel to use only North Korean e-mail. You can download instructions from Pyongyang and access lecture and study materials only via North Korean email,” said the second source.

“The software, called ‘Hangro’, disables external emails from China and around the world. It has become the only email channel where 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.

“The trade officials complain that the authorities do not trust them and are forcing them to install software on their phones and computers that makes doing business inconvenient and difficult.”

Translated by Claire shiny Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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