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What It's Like To Use North Korea's Internet

Even the country's 2 million mobile phone subscribers can't see outside the borders of Kwangmyong and Koryolink 3G.

[Photo: Flickr user (stephan)]

It is commonly accepted that the people of North Korea are cut off from all forms of technology—in stark contrast to their heavily wired counterparts to the south. Yet technology has slowly crept its way into certain, extremely limited, areas of North Korean life.

Yesterday we investigated what little is known about the country’s totalitarian Red Star operating system. But what do North Korea’s citizens see when they do gain access to a computer or mobile phone and get online?

"For the average North Korean, the Internet doesn’t exist," Martyn Williams tells Co.Labs. He's spent decades studying the country, and is now a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and the editor of the North Korea Tech blog.

Instead of access to the Internet, Williams tells me, the country has an intranet—an internal collection of networked servers and computers that is only accessible from inside North Korea’s borders. The name of this intranet is Kwangmyong, which roughly translates into "Bright" in English.

A "Bright" Intranet

As with most things about North Korea, what little is known about Kwangmyong has only been gleaned from North Korean defectors. Even foreign visitors to the country are not allowed to access it.

Kwangmyong is a free service to the country’s inhabitants—even though less than 10% of the population is believed to have ever accessed it. Computer use outside of the capital of Pyongyang is virtually unheard of, and even most of those inside the city are unlikely to have a computer in their home.

Estimates for the number of websites on Kwangmyong range between 1,000 to 5,000 and their content is mainly dedicated to news propaganda, educational and reference materials, and scanned archives. Besides its limited state-hosted websites, Kwangmyong also has a search engine, news groups functionality, and even a messaging system similar to email.

One of the few North Korean websites available on the global Internet. It's believed this is taken directly from Kwangmyong.

"Their intranet connects things like universities and schools and libraries," says Williams, "but of course it is centrally run and you can’t just put your own work server up and put your own website up there no matter what it does. It’s all very strictly controlled."

The government dictates usage rules for even the tiniest minutiae of Kwangmyong, including the underlying HTML code used on every website. One such coding mandate dictates that every time Kim Jong Il’s, Kim Il Sung’s, or Kim Jong Un’s names appear on a website their font will be 20% larger than the rest of the text on the page.

Note the larger font for the names of North Korea's leaders (Image from Martyn William's website).

What is more surprising considering the country’s level of control over its intranet is that the North Korean government has, within the last six or seven years, been allowing a very select group of individuals to access the outside Internet that we all use.

Connection to the real Internet is limited to a few dozen "elites" as they’re known. These are people in families in Pyongyang who have high-level connections in the government or military. The government has also allowed access to the broader Internet to select scientists and university students. In such cases Internet access is granted because it allows scientists and students to gather resources and learn from experts abroad, which helps advance the aims of the state in such areas as engineering, technological innovation, economics, and agriculture.

Why would the most controlling society on the planet chance give scientists and students—people who by their very nature desire to seek the truth—access to the outside world?

The government believes fear will keep them in line. "In almost all cases, all of the people that have Internet access are usually in a room and in a little room next door to the room where all the Internet computers are someone’s sitting in there basically in real time, monitoring what everybody is looking at," Williams says. "They realize if they’re on the Internet, that going and looking at Korean-language websites and free news is a very stupid thing to do because they could get caught very quickly."

The Koryolink 3G Network

Considering the measures the North Korean government goes through to limit the information that makes it into its citizens' hands, it’s almost inconceivable to believe the country allows its citizens to have mobile phones. After all, mobile phones are an increasingly important tool used to promote democratic ideals—it was an instrumental tool in the Arab Spring.

Yet North Korea does have a rapidly growing 3G network called Koryolink. Introduced in 2008, the network was a joint venture between the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC) and an Egyptian company called Global Telecom Holding. In the six years since its inception Koryolink’s subscriber base has grown from 5,000 members to over 2 million (out of a total population of around 25 million). Its network now covers between six and 100 cities in the country.

But just as with its PCs, the mobile phones available to Koryolink subscribers are cut off from the real Internet. Users can make calls to other users inside the country, and they can access the intranet, but any access to numbers outside of North Korea or the global Internet is not possible. And as can be expected, members of the Koryolink network receive daily propaganda text messages espousing the virtues and greatness of their country’s leaders.

Due to its lack of an advanced manufacturing industry, North Korea’s phones are almost certainly not made in the country. Instead they're likely to be lower-end handsets imported from China. While no Koryolink-connected handset is known to have made it outside of the country, it’s widely believed the phones are a mixed bag of flip phones and some smartphones. Higher-end handsets like iPhones and Samsung smartphones have been illegally imported, yet their use seems limited.

Most smartphones are assumed to be running a version of Android. This is supported by the fact that the country has also shown off an Android-based tablet computer called the Samjiyon, which it says is made by the domestic Chosun Computer company. Yet since North Korea lacks advanced manufacturing facilities many believe the tablet is actually a Chinese import as well.

An Assassin’s Weapon

Though the North Korean government can ensure that no one on the Koryolink 3G network can contact the outside world, one wonders whether it sees the threat in allowing citizens to communicate with each other in a semi-anonymous medium. After all, it’s hard to believe even the Orwellian North Korean government would have the technology or manpower to monitor the daily communications of 2 million subscribers.

But as Dan Bowerman, an IT consultant and editor of the Opening Up North Korea blog, points out, though the country might actively monitor the cellular communications of those in the media or military—in other words, those whose dissent could cause immediate damage to the regime—the country doesn’t need to actively monitor every single citizen because an existing culture of fear and paranoia keeps people in line.

"These things are pervasive throughout their culture," says Bowerman. "They have a very big snitch model type of system, where you never know who is looking at you. Your best friend might be tapped by the secret service one day to keep an eye on you or to report what you're doing. These kinds of things are reported by defectors to happen all the time."

Bowerman says that even if North Korea’s citizens began trusting their safety with each other more and began to communicate more openly behind closed doors on their mobile phones, the government may have no problem simply taking all their phones away. After all, they’ve done it before.

"There were cell phones back in 2003 in North Korea, and they were getting quite popular," says Bowerman. "They were gaining traction. That was going well for a while; all the senior cadres in Pyongyang had cellphones. They were a hit, and then, all of a sudden, there was a big ban on them. The government completely locked down and took everybody's cell phones away."

The reason why the government confiscated the country’s cell phones was because of a suspected assassination attempt on Kim Jong-Il’s life in 2004.

"Nothing has ever been said by the State about this, but several records of this exist," says Bowerman. "They were going to use a cell phone to detonate a bomb to kill Kim Jong-Il. This was the suspicion at the time. So cell phones went away for a few years, simply because there was a suspicion that the bomb that went off that was supposed to knock over Kim Jong-Il's train—and it went off an hour after he'd already passed through—had used a cell phone as the trigger device. This is why there was the lockdown."

A Pyongyang Spring?

Taking away the mobile phones of 2 million people in 2014 may be harder than it was a decade ago. The government seems to realize North Koreans see how advanced the rest of the world is. Some of them will travel to China. Others will watch dramas and movies smuggled from South Korea, or read websites like Wikipedia that are saved to a USB stick and literally floated into the country by a helium balloon released over the border. In the north by the Chinese border some North Koreans will risk connecting to open Wi-Fi or 3G Chinese networks on smuggled smartphones to access the outside Internet. Now, more than ever, North Koreans are waking up to what life is really like outside their borders.

The official website of North Korea. One of the few sites hosted inside North Korea's borders that are available to the outside world
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But it’s not just an awareness of the outside world’s technological advancement that would make the North Korean regime pause for a moment before taking away the country’s mobile phones now.

"Technological advancement in the country is needed more and more as North Korea gets increasingly desperate for foreigner money, which, frankly, they need to survive," says Bowerman."They have to welcome imports from China; they have to welcome imports from Russia; from the tourists that comes through. They have to make things more accessible for outsiders—and some of those things will trickle down, slowly, to the country’s citizens."

If this technology and the information it brings continues to trickle down, could it possibly lead to a Pyongyang Spring along the lines of the Arab Spring we saw in the Middle East?

"Oh, I think there’s definitely a potential in North Korea for things, very quickly actually, to reach a tipping point, and then suddenly there’s a lot of people turning against the government," says Martyn Williams. But he notes that a potential problem arises in North Korea that those in the Middle East didn’t have—at least not to the same degree.

"In other countries people have been able to self-organize, which in North Korea is difficult because even domestic communication is monitored. But also, in these other countries the eyes of the world have been on them. If you remember back to things like Tiananmen Square, while the students were in the square and while the Chinese were trying to figure out what to do, the world’s TV cameras were broadcasting live from there. It was a difficult thing for the Chinese. But in Pyongyang, even if you manage to get 10,000 people in the middle of the city protesting against the government, I think the military could roll in and shoot all of them dead and we’d only find out about it through rumors like three weeks later or something. That all makes it a lot easier for the government there to keep things under control."

Still, with the increase in the people’s awareness of technology, and the regime’s acknowledgement that embracing more technology is necessary if it hopes to turn its fragile economy around, many believe the information that has been denied to the North Korean people for so long will only continue to increase. And with that information will come an ever-increasing desire to promote change in one of the most oppressive societies on the planet.

"I think it will happen," says Williams. "The question is will it happen this year or will it happen 20 years from now? What it requires, if you’re in that type of society where fear rules...the only time you’re going to be persuaded is if you’re with such a mass of people that there’s this unstoppable momentum that allows you to rise up in relative safety. That’s going to take a while, I think. But whenever it does actually happen—as it did in Eastern Europe in 1989 when all of these countries very quickly fell—I think it could all end quite fast."

This was the second of a two-part series looking at the state of technology in North Korea and its implications for its citizens and the world. Read Part 1 here.