While Kim Jong Il has been diligently keeping his people away from the rest of the world, Internet access has been reserved for a small circle of the elite. Recently, the country made its entry into the social networks, bringing its virulent propaganda war onto the Web. North Korea’s alleged first direct connections to the World Wide Web were first observed when the "Dear Leader" was preparing his succession.
Internet: An illusionary hunting ground for the country’s elite
North Korea is literally cut off from the world, and the Internet is no exception. The World Wide Web is only accessible to a small minority: a few of the regime’s senior officials and some foreign diplomats, assured only (at least until the end of 2010) via a satellite link to foreign-based servers.
The great majority of the population is kept away from the Web and is restricted to using an intranet which provides an email inbox, a few news sites relaying the regime’s propaganda and a browser which gives users access to web pages with links to the databases of the country’s three largest libraries: the Grand People’s Study House, Kim II-Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology. This intranet system is accessible only to academics, businessmen and high-ranking officials who have received special clearance. In the last few months, hand-picked information obtained from the World Wide Web was made available on the intranet. Some universities now use open-source software derived from the Web.
The capital’s rare cybercafés are considered mainly as entertainment venues offering access to computers and games.
On the other hand, when foreigners are invited to North Korea, the regime pulls out all the stops. On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea in October 2010, some 80 foreign journalists invited to cover the military parade were granted full Internet access from Hotel Koryo, where they were staying. This parade marked the official introduction of Kim Jong II’s son, Kim Jong Un, as the country’s designated successor and his ascension to the Party’s Central Committee and to the Central Military Commission.
During these celebrations, in October 2010, North Korea is said to have made its first full connection to the Worldwide Web from its own territory, as explained by Martyn Williams of IDG News Services.
First direct connections to the World Wide Web from North Korea?
Traditionally, North Korea has been connecting its websites to the rest of the world via its foreign-based servers, but that is now changing.
Some sites using the domain name “.kp” are said to be gradually entering into service. The servers managing these domain names will now operate within the Star JV Network, a joint venture between the North Korean government and the Thai company Loxley Pacific. Six new second-level domains have apparently been recorded in addition to com.kp and edu.kp. These are: net.kp, gov.kp, org.kp, rep.kp, tra.kp and co.kp.
- Naenara: http://www.naenara.com.kp, a multilingual platform run by the Pyongyang-based Korean Computer Centre;
- The Cultural Relations Committee, in collaboration with foreign countries: http://www.friend.com.kp;
In addition, over 1,000 IP addresses assigned to North Korea in 2007 by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), but not previously used, are now in service, which suggests that servers have been set up in the country, making it possible to access the international network from North Korea: a first for the country.
The reasons for this turnabout are still not clear. Could it be an attempt to regain direct control, for ideological and practical reasons, over websites previously hosted abroad? At any rate, just as the country is supposedly making its direct entry on the World Wide Web, the regime is making an entrance on the social networks and simultaneously launching a particularly aggressive propaganda war.
The propaganda war is also being waged online
The strained relations between the two Koreas have found a soundboard in the media and on the Web. South Korea resumed its radio propaganda broadcasts after one of its ships was torpedoed – an incident for which it blamed North Korea. The latter decided to retaliate, mainly on the Internet.
The regime decided to take advantage of social networks by creating accounts on Twitter (11,463 subscribers to date) and YouTube (for which the total views for all videos combined is currently 816,334) under the user name ”Uriminzokkiri,” which means “our nation” in Korean. An account by that name had been deleted by Facebook in August 2010, but a new and similar group emerged shortly thereafter with close to 500 members. The Internet website www.uriminzokkiri.com is run by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, a propaganda agency based in Pyongyang. It is the closest thing to North Korea’s official website. These sites and accounts have been the target of cyberattacks in the last few months.
In 2010, North Korea “took its propaganda war against South Korea and the United States to a new frontier: YouTube and Twitter,” to repeat Choe Sang-Hun’s statement in The New York Times.
The propaganda circulating on these sites is meant to be particularly virulent against South Korea and the United States. In one video clip posted on the YouTube account (lien), U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is called a “minister in a skirt,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates a “war maniac” and former South Korean minister of defence Kim Tae-young a “servile dog” that likes to be patted by its “American master.”.
South Korean authorities are equally guilty of preventing their citizens from gaining access to the North’s websites. (read the chapter on South Korea).
The cell telephone service provided by Egyptian company Orascom, which mainly serves Pyongyang and a few cities in the South, has been extended to some other cities, most of them along the border. It does not permit Internet access or international calls and remains too expensive for most North Koreans, even though the number of cell phones in circulation within the country has supposedly increased. Foreigners and Koreans are assigned two different types of numbers and it is impossible to make calls between them. The authorities can monitor these calls and are doing so. Security police are tracking anyone who attempts to use telecommunications as a means to defeat the government’s control.
News smuggling is practiced in border areas. The limited information entering the country passes through the Chinese border in the form of clandestine CDs and DVDs. There is a thriving black market in those areas. Telephones from China can be used to make calls by capturing signals on the border. The recent introduction of 3G telephones in China may also improve Internet access in these border regions.
Among other alternative news websites is Dailynk, run by North Korean refugees based in South Korea. Independent radio stations broadcasting from South Korea to North Korea, Free North Korea Radio, Radio Free Chosun, Open Radio for North Korea and North Korea Reform Radio, mainly gather their news by calling upon stringers based along the Chinese border.
Nonetheless, the authorities announced in early 2010 that they intended to intensify their crackdown on “defectors” while tightening their control over border-based means of communication, focusing on the Chinese cell phones used in North Korea. The regime boasted that it has the means “to crush reactionary forces” and that it has already provided an example in January 2010, by executing a worker accused of having used an “illegal” Chinese cell phone. It is allegedly now using signal triangulation to localise and arrest offenders. Koreans who use such telephones are being careful to limit their calls to avoid being caught.
In this context, the first tentative connections from the country to the World Wide Web should not be viewed as a revolution or the first step towards generalised access by North Koreans to this open window on the outside world. This would be too dangerous for the regime.
Do these connections signal a new trend initiated by the regime’s heir apparent, who is said to be very familiar with the latest computer technologies? Or a desire, consistent with the country’s recent industrial modernisation, to partially open the Web to North Korean business?
In any case, the authorities remain resolved to maintain strict control over the population at all costs. This means controlling the Net and, above all, keeping most of the population away from the Web. The aim of North Korea’s new presence on the Web thus seems to be more to disseminate official news from the country than to allow any news unauthorised by the regime from entering it.