North Korea has an Internet of sorts, but reports claim that it’s only available to those who most-closely serve Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Yes. You read that right. The ‘Hermit Kingdom‘ has an online connection.
However, North Korea’s Internet is only available to the highest members of the government-run society. There is a more heavily controlled intranet available to lower members of society, but even that is resigned to researchers and University officials. Currently, the regime remains in control of all devices, ensuring all communications are monitored under close surveillance.
For decades, North Korea has been branded as one of the most dangerous places to be an average citizen in the world. If you’re regularly watching the news, I don’t really have to explain why. The country continues to remain in seclusion, leaving the rest of the world wondering about this its way of life.
Many media outlets have asserted that average North Korean’s starve, are served capital punishment for relatively minor offenses, and are not allowed to leave the country on pain of death.
Through the years, documentaries and undercover news about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have given us a glimpse of how the regime runs the government and controls its people. But, a most recent report published by the Associated Press provided the world with a brief look at North Korea’s Internet and communication services.
North Korea’s Internet for the Masses: The National Intranet
Contrary to what most of us know, North Korean professionals such as doctors are allowed to do live consultations via ‘online’ conferencing. In fact, lectures at the Kim Il Sung University are also being streamed to faraway factories and agricultural villages.
Some people in DPRK can also use online dictionaries and text each other on smartphones. A few elites are also said to have Jonsong or Narae cards which they use for shopping and banking ‘online.’
All these alleged online transactions do exist in North Korea. However, these basic digital activities that we usually do on a daily basis over the Internet can only be enjoyed by the elites.
Aside from the African country of Eritrea, the hermit kingdom remains to be the least Internet-friendly nation on our planet. But, the regime still believes that a more connected DPRK has a lot of potential benefits.
One of which involves a new form of social and political control.
So, as a solution to the need for global Internet connection system, Pyongyang introduced a two-tiered system that allows Kim Jong Un’s elite close allies to relatively-freely access the Internet and at the same time, keep the masses confined within the National Intranet.
The National Intranet is like the intranet typically used by companies to monitor all employee communications and keep valuable information protected within their network.
However, for North Koreans, the National Intranet serves as a digital prison that heavily filters the outside world.
No social media. No emails. No news from the rest of the world. No online access. No freedom.
How the National Intranet Works
For many, the National Intranet is considered as the alter ego of North Korea’s Internet. Accessing it is possible within the glass walls of the Science and Technology complex, a building which houses over 3,000 terminals and the country’s biggest, highly secured e-library.
According to Pak Sung Jin, a postgraduate student in chemistry, if there’s anything that he needs from the Internet, he needs to get in touch with accredited university officials who in turn will find it for him.
North Korea’s intranet is called Kwangmyong. It only has one browser, the Naenara. According to officials, Kwangmyong has exactly 168 sites which include several government networks, schools, libraries, and companies.
All desktop software in Sci-Tech runs on the Red Star operating system–a system said to have been developed from a Linux open-source code. If any user attempts to change Red Star’s core functions or tries to disable its virus checker, the operating system will reboot.
Despite the software allegedly being stolen in the first place, for any DPRK citizen to try and ‘hack’ this operating, the punishment would likely be severe.
Nat Kretchun of Open Technology said that Pyongyang’s surveillance software reveals a new information control strategy. He said:
“In North Korea cell phones and intranet-enabled devices are on balance pro-surveillance and control.”
It appears that North Korea’s Internet is commonly experienced on smartphones. To date, there are approximately 2 to 3 million smartphones in the country. Reports claimed that mobile phone usage in North Korea boomed when two foreign investors, Loxley Pacific of Thailand and Orascom Telecom Media and Technology of Egyp, introduced 3G services.
Like in Kwangmyong, all smartphones are barred from surfing the global Internet. People can take selfies and have hundreds of ringtones, but no, they are not allowed to place calls outside the network.
Just recently, despite being known for importing and rebranding IT products, two North Korean companies allegedly introduced locally manufactured devices: the Jindallae 3 mobile phone and the Ryonghung iPad.
Closer inspection of the two devices revealed many of its similarities with Apple products. It comes as no surprise since it was rumored that Kim Jong Un is fond of Apple devices.
Eric Talmadge, AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief also wrote that North Korean programmers seem to get a lot of ideas from Apple. In fact, experts believe that a program, said to be similar with the one Apple uses in its OS X and iOS, is being used to counter any attempt to disable the security functions of Red Star.
If having futile access to North Korea’s Internet is not enough, all smartphone operating systems were also updated to include a watermarking system that immediately rejects all apps and media that do not have any government approval–the very same system that Apple uses to block unauthorized apps from the App Store.
While many believe in the old adage that says imitation is the highest form of flattery, I don’t think Steve Jobs would be thrilled by this news if he’s still around. For now, one thing is clear though: North Korea’s Internet does exist. However, it’s only for Kim Jong Un and his closest loyalists to enjoy.