Last month a paper run by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) reported that the Chinese Academy of Engineering is set to unveil a new operating system in October that will replace the use of Windows on all government computers in the country–with the aim of seeing the new OS on most consumer PCs within a few years as well. The official spin is that the country is pushing devices that run software that enables them to use less energy, but many reports suggest the real reasons are twofold. First, that China would have an easier time monitoring their citizens if they controlled the development of their desktop OS, and second, that the NSA scandal has made the country extremely nervous about the perceived ease with which the U.S. government can compromise existing computer systems.
While it’s a bit isolationist for a country to have its own proprietary OS, there is a precedent. To find it, one need look no further than Beijing’s neighbor to the east, North Korea. The secretive country has used its own proprietary desktop OS, called Red Star, since 2003. Although owning a personal computer is rare outside of an elite class of politically connected citizens in Pyongyang, a growing number of students have access to PCs via heavily monitored university computer clubs. There’s also a number of citizens who work in government agencies or in the state run media industry that have access to PCs during their workday.
I spoke with two experts on North Korean technology scene to find out what the OS is like and whether a similar system would work in China or other countries.
Few in the outside world have a complete picture of what it’s like to live in North Korea. Most of what we do know about the state is pieced together from a combination of reports gleaned from returning foreign visitors, North Korean citizens who have managed to defect, and, increasingly, a small but growing number of internal leaks thanks to technological advances that allow information to more easily escape the country.
It is widely believed development on Red Star began back in 2002, with version 1.0 launching the following year. But besides a few anecdotal reports about the OS, the Western world didn’t have a good idea of the exact technology behind it until a Russian man known only as Mikhail, who was living in North Korea as an international student at the time, bought a copy of version 2.0 in Pyongyang and uploaded images of it and, later, the entire OS to the web upon his return.
It was then discovered that Red Star was not an OS written from scratch but a version of Red Hat Linux that uses a KDE 3 desktop that mimicked the look of Windows 7. That leaked copy was then followed earlier this year with information about its successor, version 3.0, which was obtained by American computer scientist and visiting lecturer at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Will Scott. Although both versions of the OS only supported one language, Korean, it was easy enough for people with a moderate understanding of Linux to navigate. To the amusement of many, version 3.0 had ditched the Windows look in favor of Apple’s OS X.
“It’s basically something that would work fine on your typical netbook,” says Dan Bowerman, a Canadian IT consultant and editor of the Opening Up North Korea blog, who also notes that it would be unheard of for anyone in North Korea to actually own a netbook. But Red Star possesses some fairly low minimum system requirements nonetheless: an 800MHz Pentium III processor with 256MB of RAM and 3GB of hard disk space.
These low system requirements are helpful in a country that doesn’t have the manufacturing capabilities to make their own hardware and are blocked from importing more powerful hardware from any number of countries due to international embargoes. The computer equipment North Korea does manage to import is generally of the lower-end, generic white box PCs from China or Russia.
As for apps, the versions of Red Star that have made it out of the country shipped with OpenOffice and some other light applications, including games, an engineering calculator, and an anti-virus, as well as with an installation of Wine, which allows Windows software to be run under Linux. There’s also a modified version of the Firefox web browser that’s been renamed “Naenara,” or “my country” in Korean.
“They like to rebrand applications to stick with their whole mythology narrative,” says Bowerman.
Not-so-subtle signs of state propaganda appear throughout the OS. Every date is displayed in the Juche Calendar, which was first introduced in 1997 and states that the first recorded day in history is April 15, 1912–the birth of Kim Il-sung.
Then there’s the desktop wallpapers.
“In the desktop wallpapers folder you have pictures of the North Korean countryside, but with artillery cannons peppered across the hillsides. And the cannons all looked the same. They’ve clearly been Photoshopped in,” says Bowerman. “Then there’s one with a shot of a beautiful Pyongyang lit up at night with soft lights on snowy-perfect streets. But in reality this is a scene you would almost certainly never see.”
Indeed, it’s widely known Pyongyang suffers from power outages and the government institutes a policy of rolling blackouts that leave some parts of the city with electricity for only an hour a night.
“You’ll also see wallpapers of agriculture and farms with running tractors. But tractors are almost non-existent in North Korea, and for the few farmers who have them–and most farmers are lucky to just own an ox–it’s very difficult for them to procure gasoline to make them work.”
But while the badly Photoshopped desktop wallpapers may look comical to outsiders, it’s just more of the status quo for North Koreans who are either numb to, or believe the propaganda they are fed in every corner of their lives. Propaganda that inundates everything North Koreans see or hear, whether it’s films, operas, billboards, music…or your desktop operating system.
However, another medium for propaganda isn’t the only use the North Korean government has for its proprietary OS. Its biggest benefit, of course, is the ability to spy on and monitor the computer activity of its citizens.
“With a Linux-based operating system they can build directly from the source, they can inspect every line of code,” says Bowerman. “They know what’s going in it and, more importantly, they can control what’s in it as well.”
Bowerman’s statements are supported by the findings of researchers at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI). As the Korea Times reported, STEPI did a thorough analysis of the leaked version 2.0 of Red Star and found that the software was “mainly designed to monitor the web behavior of its citizens and control information made available to them.”
That’s also probably why it’s not surprising to discover that Red Star isn’t just the ordinary version of Linux, either. It’s actually a Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux), which implements mandatory access controls that enable the government’s programmers to limit the modifications users could make to the system. Because of this, it’s very likely that it would be near impossible for a user to disable any of the monitoring technology built into Red Star or for users to hack their way out onto the open Internet.
If North Korea is that concerned about their citizens getting access to the open Internet, it begs the questions: Why even create a proprietary OS?
“No one knows why it was built,” says Martyn Williams, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and the editor of the North Korea Tech blog. It may have been a reflection of the time in which it was built. “Everyone was coming up with their own distributions at the time. The Chinese had one called Red Flag and there were several in Japan and in the West and things like that. Part of the thing at the time was that Linux was meant to be overtaking Windows, which of course it never really did on the desktop for most people. I think Red Star is just the product of the era.”
The only clue to any kind of vague reason for its origin amounts to a line of text found in Red Star’s readme file that orders, “You must create a system based on the Linux kernel in our [Korean] style.”
A cynical (or, perhaps, cautious) person could argue that the escalating focus on computer technology in North Korean society is being undertaken solely to ramp up the efforts of the country’s cyber-terrorism and cyber-espionage units. But North Korea’s cyber security forces are mostly based in China and using different technology altogether.
That’s why there’s a mounting consensus in the global community that North Korean leaders may have finally come to the conclusion that the country will have to begin opening up its heavily secluded society if it wants to have any hopes of surviving in a 21st century world where information is a global currency and a country’s economic health depends on how well it adapts to and embraces technological change.
“It’s a difficult balance for them,” Williams, who has been studying the country for decades. “I think they want to realize the efficiencies of modern technology, but modern technology is all about making it efficient and easy to share and move information–and information is the biggest enemy of the North Korean regime.”
“The thing is the North Koreans have been lying to their people for so long that if you really do open things up, then all of the lies are going to come out, which makes it very difficult for them,” he says. “So they’re kind of playing the skeleton dance with technology.”
But Williams notes that increasing digital freedoms isn’t something North Korea would need to embrace in an all-or-nothing manner (because if it’s “all” it’s not happening). One increasingly likely option the North Korean government could now be considering is copying a move from China’s playbook.
“One of the things that has been put out there in recent years is that maybe North Korea is hoping to kind of follow more of the Chinese model where there is relatively free access to information, but still quite strict government control at times when it’s needed.”
If this is a model that North Korea is indeed moving to, it’s something which would be helped along greatly by its Red Star OS. The country could then not only set up a Great Firewall like China has, but might feel more secure in knowing they’d have deep control over the underlying code of the operating system running on their citizens’ desktops.
If North Korea does takes its lead from China it would, of course, now be ironic when you consider that China, spurred mainly by the NSA revelations, seems to be following in the footsteps of North Korea by launching a proprietary OS next month.
Could this set a precedent for other controlling countries–or even democratic countries who are now, rightly, concerned about the NSA’s oversight powers–to begin launching OSes that are limited to geographic or political boundaries?
“I think that operating system is less important than it used to be,” says Williams. “I think the real question in terms of security and control for these countries is where is your data sitting? That’s going to be much more important.”
“But,” he adds, “if people really start to fear about where their data is, then you do at some stage start to get an opportunity for people to start using more local services. The Chinese with their firewall–they pretty much keep a close eye on what people are doing. But who’s to say who has more visibility into what the Chinese are doing–the NSA or the Chinese government themselves?”
And if that’s no longer an easy question to answer, we may soon live in a world where other countries begin seeing the appeal of an operating system like North Korea’s Red Star OS.
This was Part 1 of a two-part series looking at the state of technology in North Korea and its implications for its citizens and the world. Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.