North Korea: Internet Access Only for the Political Elite

March 18th, 2010   Theme: Internet Freedom

Internet freedom does not exist in North Korea. All means of communication are controlled by the state and new technology is no exception. The importance of such a control is questionable, since North Korea lacks any broad technological infrastructure. There is indeed a small national intranet, available to universities, authorities and state owned companies but connection to the rest of the world is missing. Only within the highest ranks in society, the small minority with ties to the leadership in the communist party and the military, has the possibility to connect to what we usually call internet. Some within the elite are believed to have a fairly good connection with the rest of the world through internet. For instance, Kim Jong Il gave his personal e-mail address to Madeleine Albright at their meeting in Pyongyang in 2000.

The North Korean intranet is called the Kwangmyong, and is said to include functions such as e-mail, web browser, news, academic database and similar features. Everything is, as previously mentioned, internal material – strictly monitored and restricted. External web pages are said to be downloadable at request, but merely after careful censorship. Foreigners in North Korea, however, enjoy a reasonably unlimited access to Internet and the embassies in Pyongyang are connected through satellite. At the hotels, foreign visitors may surf and send e-mails. These are however first controlled by each hotel’s officer in charge of censorship.

According to the country’s official sources, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is said to be an expert in IT-technology. This is likely an exaggeration, just as many other facts about him. However, North Korea is thought to host an extensive program to IT related research, both for military and civilian purpose. The Korean Computer Center (KCC) is the name of a state owned research unit which coordinate North Korean IT technology – let it be of the more innocent kind. The center was founded in 1990 by a personal decree of Kim Jon Il, and built at a cost of 530 million dollars. The increasingly well-known Kim Jong-nam, the oldest son of Kim Jon Il, was appointed to run the organization. As a student at a Swiss private school, Kim Jong-nam studied computer science. After graduation, he brought that knowledge back to North Korea.

It is uncertain though, if Kim Jong-nam remains the leader of the organization. Since he was arrested at an airport close to Tokyo in 2001, after travelling with a forged passport, he is believed to have been stripped of rank in the North Korean political hierarchy. Nevertheless, the KCC flourishes, developing computer games, programs for use of Korean signs in Linux and even operative systems for the cell phones of the South Korean mobile giant Samsung.

North Korean IT technology is thus more sophisticated than what could be expected. This reads true also for the hostile, military section. Last year, hackers attacked the homepages of several South Korean authorities, think tanks and other institutions. The North Korean military IT unit was a prime suspect at an early state and much indicates that they were indeed responsible. North Korean hackers are likely to be advanced as they are trained already from the age of ten. Most of them receive their education at some of the country’s elite schools, which according to some, is of the same quality as advanced IT engineering programs in South Korea.

How to get in contact with the world’s most closed country via e-mail?

It is expensive and quite complicated. North Korean authorities use the system Silibank which is updated every ten minutes through servers in China and North Korea. Each e-mail has a price of at least one euro and enclosing larger files come at a high cost. As the North Korean IT industry develops – and much indicates that it is bound to – it is unlikely that this defect system could possibly be upheld.

Text: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
Independent writer

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