North Koreans get around restrictions by rooting their Android phones

Information security


  • A new report has described how some North Koreans rooted their Android phones.
  • Escapees said people rooted their phones to install unauthorized apps and consume unauthorized media files.

Android phones in North Korea are subject to lots of restrictions and surveillance software, but it turns out that some citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

A new report from the North Korea-focused human rights organization Lumen and researcher Martyn Williams (h / h: The cable) has revealed that some North Korean citizens are rooting their Android phones to install unauthorized apps and consume unauthorized media.

Two North Korean refugees interviewed as part of the report confirmed that they rooted their government-approved Pyongyang 2423 and Pyongyang 2413 smartphones, adding that friends and peers also helped each other root smartphones.

North Korea’s bid for Android phones

When they said that, the refugees did not think that practice was widespread, as their background helped them acquire this knowledge. One of the fugitives worked as a programmer for a North Korean-backed company in China and was able to smuggle software home. Meanwhile, the other was a college student and part of a group of computer science students sharing software and knowledge.

Related: Everything you need to know about rooting your Android device

Approved smartphones like these models run a customized version of Android with a number of limitations. This only includes connection to North Korea’s intranet (which is barred from the Internet itself) and a signature system to prevent unauthorized apps and content from running.

The most intrusive inclusion on these phones is a so-called Trace Viewer app that snoops on users. The program randomly snaps and saves photos where users cannot delete those photos.

Bypass official restrictions

Pyongyang 2425 Lumen Project Reveal

The North Korean refugees briefly outlined their method of circumventing these restrictions on Android phones. They connected the phone to a PC via USB cable and tricked the device into accepting the installation of a rooting app.

The interviewees added that rooting was done for various reasons. These reasons included installing unauthorized apps and photo filters, consuming unauthorized media files, switching to a new home screen, re-enabling dual-SIM support, and deleting images snapped by the Trace Viewer monitoring software. One of the escapees added that some people who knew how to root these phones and install / remove content would offer their services to less tech savvy users.

Interestingly, the government has hit back with some of the latest smartphones. The report found that the newer Pyongyang 2425 smartphone (seen above) has locked the ability to connect to a PC via USB as you can see the phone listed on the computer but can not access its file system at all.

The government has also introduced a three-month labor camp for people caught with a phone that has a “cell phone manipulation program”. Nevertheless, we guess that this cat-and-mouse game will continue between the government and tech-savvy citizens.