Mobile Phones and Subversive Activity in the DPRK

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East Asian modernity / North Korea / North Korean border region / Sino-North Korean relations / Yanbian

I did some translation work just now on Curtis Melvin’s site and thought I might toss it up on S.V. for readers who don’t frequent NK Economy Watch.  (Unthinkable! )

Melvin quotes this Donga Ilbo story which describes the connection between an assassination attempt at a North Pyong’an train station on Kim Jong Il in 2004 (not to be confused with An Hyo San at the Harbin station!).

So once again you, the beloved reader, get original content not available anywhere else!  (Well, besides on NK Economy Watch thanks to my hyperactive mouse.)

The original source for the story is an article in the Chongqing (Sichuan, PRC) Evening News, excerpted in full at this Tiexue BBS site:

Here is relevant Chinese text [translation by Adam Cathcart]:


On April 22, 2004, around noon, the story is that in North Korea’s North Pyong’an Province, Ryongchon County, a serious train explosion caused the deaths of nearly 200 people and injured more than 1,500 people, while more than 8000 homes were destroyed.

Some analysts believe that the catastrophic consequences of this North Korean train explosion followed from a attempted plan to target North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for assassination

At the time of the April 22 Ryongchon explosion, clues collected along the tracks indicated that unhealthy elements had used mobile phones. For fear that internal information would leak [to the outside], the mobile phone business would be stopped.

The last sentence is pretty interesting; the phrase used is “唯恐” which means “for fear that,” but it can also lead into the idiomatic expression 唯恐天下不乱 which means “in order that all under Heaven remain unchaotic,” which seems to be a tactful dynastic-type allusion to the idea that the DPRK could ignite whenever.


The order to stop mobile phone services came down directly from the [North] Korean National Defense Committee, particularly [stating] that the authority/rights of those in special business sectors to use mobile phones was [henceforth] strictly limited and that previously held mobile phones [should be] confiscated.

After North Korea totally banned mobile phone use within its borders, many residents/citizens, having spent big money (about 1300 USD for everything including accessories and network access fees) to purchase mobile phones, became dissatisfied due to the fact that their cell phones had been rendered into scrap overnight.

As a side note, I wonder why this news is leaking out of the PRC at a time when Kim Jong Il is said to be mulling over a return trip to China, which would almost certainly be taken by train (through the same station?). It’s a bit mystifying. But then again, Chinese readers probably have more sympathy for North Korea’s striving elites than is often acknowledged and Xinhua, perhaps, puts this story out as a gentle reminder (at a time when people are getting arrested for downloading “unharmonious content” onto their mobile phones) that life in the PRC could be much, much worse.

Musan, North Hamgyong Province, on the Sino-NK border -- photo by Adam Cathcart

"Can you hear me now, Minneapolis?" -- image courtesy Autumn Compton and the Most Wanted

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: North Korean Economy Watch » Blog Archive » Ryongchon revisited

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