About the Author
View more articles by Tae-il Shim
Tae-il Shim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. He left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Hwanyonghamnida, readers of Ask a North Korean — the feature where you can email us with your questions about life in North Korea and have them answered by NK News‘s very own defector writers.
Today’s question is from Kellyn, from Dawson Creek, Canada, who asks whether the eavesdropping networks depicted in the series “Crash Landing on You” really exist. If they do, how extensive are they?
Tae-il Shim, who left North Korea in 2018, sheds light on this highly secretive part of North Korean society. He even describes a firsthand experience he had with the technology when he was still living north of the 38th parallel.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Just like in the South Korean drama “Crash Landing on You,” words and thoughts that go against the Juche philosophy and the government may seem trivial, but monitoring them is an important task for the Ministry of State Security (MSS).
As someone who lived in North Korea for over 50 years, while I do think the producers deserve thanks for their efforts, I feel there were a lot of sloppy inaccuracies in the drama.
First off, there are several ways the North Korean authorities can get the information they seek from their citizens. This includes wiretapping, tailing suspects, and the use of listening devices.
Wiretapping and listening devices are only used by the MSS, the provincial, city, and county divisions of the MSS, as well as the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) Security Command.
Surveillance on members of the Party, the People’s Committees of each province, city, and county, and generals in the KPA is always being strengthened. The MSS also monitors defector families in South Korea, China, Japan, the U.S., and the UK.
On top of that, in every inminban there are around five or six informants for the MSS. They’re not officially employed MSS agents, but they do perform work in secret for them.
There are also secret MSS informers among the employees of every factory, company, collective farm, and even every party, administrative, and economic institution. These secret operatives send out surveillance reports at least twice a week.
In order to maintain secrecy, they go to certain designated locations at night to send and receive letters containing information on planned targets and guidelines for their surveillance activities and methods.
In every inminban there are also approximately five spies known as “public security users” working under the neighborhood police officer, and every inminban leader is also obligated to act as a “user.”
The MSS’s web, which has been spun even more intricately than a spider’s, blankets all of North Korea.
This nation-wide surveillance system, of which wiretapping and listening devices are but only a part of, is entirely unethical and only demonstrates the dictatorial nature of the North Korean regime. I only hope that it soon disappears from existence.
Wiretapping and listening devices are similar but perform different functions: listening devices secretly record the target’s words to produce a recording that is then used for whatever objective, and wiretapping records the contents of a target’s phone conversations and the like.
I myself directly experienced the use of these devices around 1996.
During the election that year, electoral registers had been ripped up at night in several electorates in Hyesan. In Yonpung-dong’s neighborhood public restroom, someone had scrawled graffiti opposing to the election.
These incidents were reported by the provincial level to the central level, and the MSS sent an inspection group to investigate.
Subsequently, the city MSS branch’s counter-espionage officer and the Yonpung-dong neighborhood’s MSS agent, Mr. Kim, came looking for me. He said they were about to mount a large-scale MSS operation and needed my help.
The group dressed like regular people, although I still vividly remember how one woman in her sixties was carrying several different sunglasses, changes of clothing, and even wigs in her handbag. But it was the square-shaped listening bugs, that could easily fit into the palm of one’s hand, that drew my attention.
The targets of the MSS’s suspicions were Mr. Park and his two sons, who lived together along with Mr. Park’s wife in Group Five, Yonpung-dong.
I mentioned that I was close with Mr. Park, so I was to bring some pork I’d bought at the market over to his home and drink with him.
It was a muggy summer, and the stove was on because I was cooking the meat, so it was especially hot inside the house. I had to keep his attention off the open back window where the MSS agents were installing the listening devices.
However, two months of tailing the family and listening in on their conversations resulted in nothing and so no arrests were made.
The MSS’s web, which has been spun even more intricately than a spider’s, blankets all of North Korea
More recently, there’s been more focus on wiretapping cell phones than the use of listening devices.
Three or four years ago, the MSS formed what are called “111 command groups.” There are now operational sections chiefs leading teams of around ten skilled MSS agents located in each province, city, and county.
Their primary task is to root out and crack down on those fleeing to South Korea, praying, reading “bad” printed materials, and watching South Korean dramas. In other words, they are tasked with purging activities viewed as anti-party, counterrevolutionary, and dangerous religious ideological trends.
The 111 command groups work day and night patrolling their areas of operation, paying close attention to signs of subversive activity.
Those officers that came up from Pyongyang to Hyesan were tall, good-looking young people in their twenties to early thirties.
Dressing like officers proved to be impractical when it came to apprehending criminals though, so they went undercover, disguising themselves as beggars as they wandered the city carrying out their surveillance. They dressed like the “kotjebi” — North Korean children without homes, money, or food.
They carry around pistols, walkie talkies, and, most importantly, devices for listening in on cell phone conversations. Some of these items in a business-use bag, others hide them underneath their shirts.
If a phone call is made from a nearby device that is not North Korean but Chinese — in other words, one that allows communication with the outside world — the listening device starts beeping.
The MSS officers then run in the direction of the beeping to try and catch the criminal before it stops. They would pursue their prey like a snake lunging after a frog in the grass.
The MSS officers’ primary interest isn’t actually in protecting the North Korean system though; rather, it’s extracting bribes from those they arrest.
If you are caught calling China then you have to pay a bribe of 3,000 Chinese yuan. If you were calling South Korea, then it’s 5000 Chinese yuan. From 2017, this fee could be as much as 10,000 Chinese yuan.
For the most part, those phoning South Korea or overseas have certain connections with the MSS. Both the party making the call and the party trying to catch them have an interest in making money, which ensures that relationships are maintained between the two.
Hwanyonghamnida, readers of Ask a North Korean -- the feature where you can email us with your questions about life in North Korea and have them answered by NK News's very own defector writers.
Today's question is from Kellyn, from Dawson Creek, Canada, who asks whether the eavesdropping networks depicted in the series "Crash Landing on You" really exist. If they do, how extensive are they?