For most of the world, the common practice of “rooting” or “jailbreaking” a phone allows the device’s owner to install apps and software tweaks that break the restrictions of Apple’s or Google’s operating systems. For a growing number of North Koreans, on the other hand, the same form of hacking allows them to break out of a far more expansive system of control—one that seeks to extend to every aspect of their lives and minds.
On Wednesday, the Stimson Center think tank’s North Korea–focused 38 North project released a report on the state of smartphones and telecommunications in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a country that restricts its citizens’ access to information and the internet more tightly than any other in the world. The report details how millions of government-approved, Android-based smartphones now permeate North Korean society, though with digital restrictions that prevent their users from downloading any app or even any file not officially sanctioned by the state. But within that regime of digital repression, the report also offers a glimpse of an unlikely new group: North Korean jailbreakers capable of hacking those smartphones to secretly regain control of them and unlock a world of forbidden foreign content.
“There has been a sort of constant battle between the North Korean government and its citizens over use of technology: Each time a new technology has been introduced, people have usually found a way to use it for some illicit purpose. But that hasn’t really been done through this kind of hacking—until now,” says Martyn Williams, a researcher at 38 North. “In terms of the future of free information in North Korea, it shows that people are still willing to try to break the government’s controls.”
Learning anything about the details of subversive activity in North Korea—digital or otherwise—is notoriously difficult, given the Hermit Kingdom’s nearly airtight information controls. 38 North’s findings on North Korean jailbreaking are based on interviews with just two defectors from the country. But Williams says the two escapees both independently described hacking their phones and those of other North Koreans, roughly corroborating each others’ telling. Other North Korea–focused researchers who have interviewed defectors say they’ve heard similar stories.
Both jailbreakers interviewed by 38 North said they hacked their phones—government-approved, Chinese-made, midrange Android phones known as the Pyongyang 2423 and 2413—primarily so that they could use the devices to watch foreign media and install apps that weren’t approved by the government. Their hacking was designed to circumvent a government-created version of Android on those phones, which has for years included a certificate system that requires any file downloaded to the device to be “signed” with a cryptographic signature from government authorities, or else it’s immediately and automatically deleted. Both jailbreakers say they were able to remove that certificate authentication scheme from phones, allowing them to install forbidden apps, such as games, as well as foreign media like South Korean films, TV shows, and ebooks that North Koreans have sought to access for decades despite draconian government bans.
In another Orwellian measure, Pyongyang phones’ government-created operating system takes screenshots of the device at random intervals, the two defectors say—a surveillance feature designed to instill a sense that the user is always being monitored. The images from those screenshots are then kept in an inaccessible portion of the phone’s storage, where they can’t be viewed or deleted. Jailbreaking the phones also allowed the two defectors to access and wipe those surveillance screenshots, they say.