Seoul (AFP) - North Korea is cracking down on the private use of mobile phones to make international calls, as the authorities seek to bolster its citizens' isolation from the outside world, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
A report by the human rights watchdog said Kim Jong-Un regime's was doling out harsh penalties -- including internment in political prison camps -- to those caught trying to contact relatives who had fled overseas.
"To maintain their absolute and systematic control, the North Korean authorities are striking back against people using mobile phones to contact family abroad," said Amnesty East Asia researcher Arnold Fang.
While the country's popular domestic mobile phone service has over three million subscribers, international calls are strictly blocked for North Korean users.
Instead, many rely on so-called "Chinese mobile phones" -- imported handsets and SIM cards that allow international calls via Chinese mobile networks near the border, the report said.
The phones and SIMs are often covertly sent by family members living abroad -- a practise that involves bribes of around $500 (455 euros) to border security guards to get the handsets smuggled in.
Although talking to people outside North Korea on the phone is not technically illegal, private trade in mobile devices from other countries is against the law, according to Amnesty.
Anyone caught making an international call using a "Chinese mobile phone" risks being sent to a reform facility or a political prison camp.
Defectors interviewed by Amnesty said the authorities had advanced surveillance equipment capable of tracking illicit mobile phone use.
"They can figure out the position of mobile phones precisely," said Bak-Moon, a North Korean engineer who fled the country.
Fang described the absolute control of communication as a "key weapon" for North Korean authorities to conceal details about the "dire human rights" situation in the country.
"North Koreans are not only deprived of the chance to learn about the world outside, they are suppressed from telling the world about their almost complete denial of human rights," Fang said.
Pyongyang is extremely sensitive to criticism of its human rights record, which was the subject of a scathing 2014 report by a UN Commission of Inquiry.
The report concluded that North Korea was committing rights violations "without parallel in the contemporary world."