North Korea is no joke. With a population reaching 25 mln, the regime exploits only 28 websites. Quite an original web right?
We could get a glimpse of it when on December 22, 2014, a whole country was utterly cut off from the Internet for nine hours. It may seem not important at all but even though the causes of the outage are still obscure, what happened to North Korea that day gave us a glimpse on the North Korean Internet. It is not such an easy thing to do taking into account the tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. However, this general paralysis in North Korea highlighted the fragility of Pyeongyang’s network.
So, what do we know about the North Korean internet?
It is a small network, controlled, slow and expensive. But it’s still internet and it works. The vast majority of North Koreans do not have any access to the World Wide Web. North Korea has a very specific type of internal network – intranet – opened in 2000 and called Kwangmyong, which means “brilliant star” in Korean. It is a closed network running on pirated versions of Microsoft. It provides access to Korean news sites, educational television and regime approved e-mail boxes. Websites are mostly copies of foreign websites. The most important thing to remember about the Pyongyang’s intranet is the fact that all of it is obviously controlled by the regime.
Most of North Koreans don’t even have a computer access. This kind of technology is accessible only to the inhabitants of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. They can use this technology in universities, government offices, and cybercafes. In addition, the possession of a computer requires an official authorization. The only authorized brand is North Korean and is known under the name of the Morning Panda, which is a public state-owned company that produces only a hundred computers a year.
What are the limitations?
Other than governmental control, the access to the web is also complicated in North Korea because of frequent power cuts that affect the whole country. If some universities have generators, it is far from being the case of the entire population. All types of connection are expensive and very slow, with North Korea being connected by a single cable to China till recently. As we previously mentioned in our articles, North Korean internet connection have been based on China Unicom network. However, in 2017 North Korea gained a second line from Russian state-owned company TransTeleCom. As for oil, the country was dependent on China when it comes to power and internet, which put it at a disadvantage as China could decide to cut the connection at any time. The new link through Russia makes the regime’s Internet more stable.
Since 2008, North Koreans can also access Kwangmyong via a 3G network called Koryolink. This network was jointly developed by the national public telecommunication company and another company from Egypt, explains Fast Colabs. According to information from 2014, Koyolink grew from 5000 users to around two million (out of a total population of 25 million). Again, Koryolink users have access to the North Korean intranet only, and can just call within the country’s borders. In return, they receive daily messages of propaganda glorifying the regime.
What kind of websites do we know about?
On 28 identified North Korean websites, only a few remain still active. This is a list of all North Korean websites available on the public Internet.
Air Koryo – the website for North Korea’s only commercial airline, which operates internal flights as well as international ones to China, Russia and Kuwait
Korean dishes – a culinary website that contains recipes for North Korean dishes restaurant reviews, which is run by the Korean Association of Cooks\
Friend – the site for the Cultural Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, an organization based in Spain that organizes cultural events and international exchanges between North Korea and other countries. The site contains news, e-books and information about cultural exchange programmes
Great National Unity – the Pyongyang Broadcasting Agency’s website, this is a Korean language page targetted at people in Japan, China and South Korea
Korean Association of Social Scientists – a possible education website for adults
The Korean Central News Agency – a news site for the country’s main news agency
The Korean International Youth and Children’s Travel Company – possibly a site for foreign visitors
The Korean National Insurance Corporation – the country’s state-run insurance company
The Korea Education Fund – the website for an education non-governmental organization that is in English and Korean
Korean Elderly Care Fund – another non-governmental organization’s site that specializes in care for the elderly
KorFilm – official site for the Pyongyang International Film Festival and the country’s film industry
Maritime Administration of Korea
Naenara – Korean for “my country”, this is the government’s official site and a web portal for news, magazines and music
The Korean Tourism Board
Rodong Sinmun – the website for the leadership body of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the country’s only political party
Kim Il Sung University – the website for the first university built in North Korea
Sports Chosun – sports news site. There is also Faster Korea, which contains information about international sports
Voice of Korea – website for North Korea’s shortwave broadcaster
10 other websites were not online, including what appeared to be the Facebook clone, Starcon
Who has access to the global Internet in North Korea?
Some “lucky ones” have access to the global Internet. According to Vox, there are 1,024 IP addresses for 25 million people. A derisory figure compared to the billions of addresses available in the United States or in other countries. In the free world, we are so tech-addicted that we actually have to switch to Ipv6, as we don’t have enough old style IPs. Everybody who has access to the global internet in North Korea is privileged. Among these privileged, the high dignitaries, of course, but also families related to the government or the army. According to Fast Colabs, the government allows some researchers and students to surf the Web to consult international research end expertizes. The authorities make use of the connection as a way to control those who are potentially more critical of the regime: all their connections are closely monitored. Finally, some propagandists, hackers and media specialists need the Internet as part of their job. Vox explains that to guarantee worker loyalty, these professions are mostly accompanied by very high wages.
Why allow some to access?
Vox distinguishes three reasons for letting some elites access the Web. First of all, propaganda, to spread the glory of Kim Jong-un outside the country. Then comes the privilege system specific to North Korea. The elite does not live like the rest of the population and have access to the films, books, forbidden technologies and alcohol they desire. It’s also a way for Kim Jong-un to maintain their loyalty.
Finally, the Internet is necessary for the hacker army that North Korea has been developing since August 2012, when Kim Jong-un took over the county. According to Courrier International, 6000 elite/ professional hackers are in the service of the state.
The World Once Laughed at North Korean Cyberpower. No More.
For more than a decade, the best elementary students would have access to state hacker training at two colleges in Pyongyang and at the university. They are studying and working to carry out the cyberwar in which North Korea seems to see a huge potential. South Korea now says the North employs 6,000 elite hackers which are known to be on of the best on this planet.
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