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How Chinese surveillance technology helps North Korea keep its citizens on a tight leash

Heavy reliance on Chinese surveillance technology has allowed North Korea to keep its population under tight control and make illegal border crossings difficult, as the isolated country expands digital transformation aimed at controlling “various facets of public and private life”.

Experts say North Korea is also setting up a fourth-generation mobile telecoms network to boost its remote online monitoring capabilities while maintaining “highly effective” human-level analogue watch.

Martyn Williams, senior fellow at Pyongyang-focused Stimson Centre and long-time North Korea researcher, said the hermit kingdom had a “high level of aptitude” when it came to software engineering and programming, but its ability to manufacture devices was limited due to the lack of a large hardware industry.

The North is putting a lot of resources and efforts into developing technology and algorithms for surveillance but it “overly relies on imported Chinese technology” for devices including mobile handsets and security cameras, Williams told journalists at a press meet in Seoul on Monday.

In 2022, China-North Korea trade stood at US$1.03 billion, up 125 per cent from the previous year, according to Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Photographs on Chinese social media taken along China’s border with North Korea showed closed-circuit television cameras mounted on North Korean guard posts. The devices were installed during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, when Pyongyang was building a second layer of security fences to prevent the spread of the virus.

The equipment was useful for stopping illegal border crossings and keep an eye on guards who look the other way and let people cross the frontier in return for bribes, according to