Kim Jong Un knows the value of the internet, both as a source of information and a method of social control, but can he control it. He wants to be connected, but he does not want the general population of about 25 million North Koreans to have the same access.
Pyongyang has come up with an answer, according to Eric Talmadge, of the Associated Press (AS): a two-tiered system. The trusted elite can have full access to the internet, while the general population are kept behind a form of virtual iron curtain, known as the intranet.
According to Talmadge, this unique undertaking is symbolized by the Knowledge Sector science and technology building situated on Ssuk island on the Taedong river running through the capital Pyongyang. This is where North Korea’s biggest e-library is housed. It has over 3,000 terminals. Factory workers use it to acquire tele-learning skills and university students do research there.
North Korean students who study there use black coloured Ullim desktop computers. The walled-off network that North Korea uses is called Kwangmyong, meaning Brightness, or Light.
The system uses a modified version of the west’s Firefox, called a Naenara browser. The desktop computers run on an operating system (OS), called Red Star 3.0, which was taken from Linux open-source coding.
As regards North Korea in general, almost no one has access to a laptop or desktop computer. But what is growing rapidly in North Korea is the use of mobile phones, in particular, smart phones.
At this stage (late 2017) it is estimated there are about 2.5 to 3 million smart phones in the hands of North Koreans, according to Talmadge. Two companies in particular have gotten phones into the hands of the people, Thailand’s Loxley Pacific and the Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom Media and Technology.
But just as the majority of the people are locked inside North Korea, so is the web service. A local can call or text another local anywhere inside the country, but they have no outside access. Put simply, the rest of the world is shut off.
A new phone can cost between 200 to 400 dollars, but second hand phones are much cheaper. Two main models are Arirang and Pyongyang.
It is incredible the amount of effort Pyongyang is putting into stemming the tide of modern web technology.
If a student needs something from the internet at the Pyongyang based Knowledge Sector he or she must go to an accredited university official who will search the information for the student. – just for a moment, imagine this in practise in an average Irish university; scores of students lining up to get an ‘official’ to find whatever information they need off the web. The queue would probably run out the door and down the corridor into the street – There are about 168 sites on Kwangmyong and these are spread across separate networks, divided up into government agencies, schools, libraries, and companies. This is unprecedented control over the WWW. While other countries such as China or Cuba do control access, North Korean is unique in that it practises a virtual world replacement of an actual physical wall or iron curtain, in other words, complete isolation from the rest of the world.
Under the bonnet of the Red Star OS are some very draconian surveillance techniques. Coding experts who have acquired versions of Red Star OS say they have found that files downloaded from USBs for example are watermarked, so that the authorities can track ‘criminal or subversive activity’. This is to try and stem leakage from across the borders of China to the north and smart phone mad South Korea to the south.
Red Star also keeps track of what is being searched or worked on by students or operatives by taking periodic snapshots. The user cannot access or delete these snapshots. These modifications, experts say, shows an ability by Kim Jong Un, both to understand the value of this technology and the advantages and dangers of the Web to a modern day dictator.
In the past, the control of the masses was people intensive. People were basically encouraged to spy on one another. This has been well documented by writers such as Blaine Harden and Barbara Demick. Jong-Un has moved with the times, in his own perverse way. Now, along with a ‘resource intensive human network’ of informants, such as the state security ministry’s Thought Police, the powers in Pyongyang are learning how to use computers and smartphones for surveillance and social control of the country’s population.
They have thought of everything and are painstaking in their roll out of this control and surveillance. Visitors to North Korea are corralled off into a different network. They cannot make calls to, or receive them from, the local population. Even if they buy a local phone while in the country, the phone is stripped of the apps that would allow them to make calls to North Korean people. There is no Wi-Fi for locals.
Still, you would have to wonder, with the growing prevalence of satellites and interconnectivity, how much of this is minding mice at a cross roads. Private trading has sneaked in to North Korea like a hidden water leak, and the internet is sure to follow, maybe.