SAN FRANCISCO – As IT spreads throughout North Korean society, the number of computers and tablet PCs on offer continues to grow. While some lucky ones have western-made laptops and even iPads, a handful of customized computers have begun to appear.
They mostly come from the state-run Korea Computer Center although one is also being promoted by a foreign joint venture company.
While state-media has shown images of “production lines” at factories where the computers are said to be made, it appears that the machines are actually made overseas. They most likely come from Chinese low-cost computer makers, which have built their entire business on producing computers that can be mass produced at a low cost and customized with their customer’s brand name. It isn’t so different to the way most big-name computer makers source their products.
The photographs issued by state media appear to show some assembly in Pyongyang, so it’s possible the finished circuit boards, screens and batteries are being put together in the DPRK, but it’s impossible to say for sure.
The software in the computers is a different matter. North Korea has always been stronger in software than hardware and it appears that most of the applications running in these computers are home grown.
THE MENQ NOTEBOOK
Making its debut on state TV in March 2011, a new netbook computer was reported as being made in the DPRK. The report showed a factory where assembly, but not manufacturing appeared to be taking place. It was identified as belonging to the “Information Technology Institute,” which is part of the Korea Computer Center.
However, subsequent research uncovered a small laptop made by China’s Menq that looks identical to the North Korean machine.
The Shenzhen-based company is in the business of selling laptops to-order, so it probably produced the computer and supplied it to the DPRK.
Similar netbooks were also sold through the CVS pharmacy chain in the U.S. for $99.
THE KCC TABLET
The Korea Computer Center debuted its tablet PC at the 2012 Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair. Identified as coming from the KCC’s “New Information Technology Trade Company,” the computer appeared to have a screen between 6- and 8-inches in size.
A KCC official told state TV, the tablet was developed “to enable people to study revolutionary ideas, to use science and technology, to carry out their business and to enjoy movies.”
THE ACHIM TABLET
The Achim (Morning) tablet PC went public in July 2012, just a couple of months after the first tablet appeared. It’s said to provide “teaching materials, references, dictionaries and scientific data.”
The computer is made by Achim Panda. The company was established on September 10, 2002, as a foreign joint venture between the Ministry of Electronics Industry and China’s Panda Electronics Group.
North Korean leadership have maintained strong links with Panda. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il visited the company in China.
Kim Jong Il most recently visited the company’s Nanjing campus during his June 2011 trip, where he was caught on camera by a Chinese netizen. The video attracted the interest of DPRK watchers because Kim was accompanied on the visit by a middle-aged woman, apparently his fourth wife Kim Ok.
Like the previous tablet, it also runs Android.
The Samjiyon got its debut at the Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair. Coming from the KCC’s Multimedia Technology Research Institute, the tablet doubles as a portable television, according to state media. The Samjiyon, as with the above tablets, runs Android as its operating system.
Japan’s Kyodo News reported that clicking the “literary art and books” icon brings up the works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Internet access was not included, which isn’t a surprise since most ordinary North Koreans are not permitted to access the Internet.
KCC has also produced some accessories, including a keyboard to which the machine can be connected. When the two are attached, it can be used in a configuration like a conventional laptop computer.
The latest computer to come out of North Korea is called Noul. It first made the Rodong Sinmun in January 2013 and featured on KCNA in March.
Industrial computers are meant to be sturdy, resistant to dust and grime, and typically run specialized operating systems or are intended for a small number of tasks.
Indeed, KCNA claimed its life is twice that of a conventional PC because of the environmental protection.
Two models are available, one with a 5.7-inch screen and one with a 10.4-inch screen.
It’s reportedly in use at the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex and Huichon Power Station.
Headline image: KCTV