Last weekend North Korean media treated us with a remarkable picture: the Supreme Leader Marshal Kim Jong Un with a new domestically produced smartphone in his hands. Kim was shown playing with the newly made ‘Arirang’ smartphone, which was allegedly produced locally, at a factory the Marshal himself was visiting to inspect.
A few months earlier North Korean media had written about the ‘Samjiyon’ tablet PC – also said to be produced locally –which comes pre-loaded with a large amount of ideologically correct and useful content, such as the full works of the Supreme Leader’s father and grandfather Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Some have expressed doubts as to whether the ‘Arirang’ and ‘Samjiyon’ are actually produced in North Korea. In all likelihood the North Koreans produce most of the software, do some hardware work domestically, but almost certainly import the majority of the key components required to build these devices.
At any rate, the media fuss around these gadgets has once again directed mainstream attention towards the state of communications and information technology in North Korea.
In the late 1990s, some 15 years ago, a North Korean would laugh if asked whether he or she had a telephone at home. A home phone was a sign of great privilege, available only to the lucky few. Most cities did not even have automatic phone exchanges, so connections were done manually by an operator. There were no mobile phones and computers were extremely rare.
But this soon changed – and the changes were both remarkable because of their speed, but also because the dramatic improvement happened against the background of dire economic conditions.
The greatest media attention was attracted by the mobile phone revolution which began in North Korea in 2008.
The first attempt to create a mobile network in North Korea took place in late 1995 and ended in fiasco. In 1995 the Thailand-based Loxley company and North Korean state-run communication agency established a joint venture called North East Asia Telephone and Telecommunications Company Limited (NEAT&T). One of its goals was to introduce a nationwide mobile phone service.
Initially access was limited to top officials and police and security personnel, but from late 2002 individual subscribers were also allowed – as long as they were willing and able to pay very high fees. The number of subscribers was soon counted in the tens of thousands (peaking at some 40-50,000). However, in 2004 the service was stopped abruptly, and all mobile phones were confiscated by the authorities. Only a handful of the top officials continued to use them.
In late 2008, however, the ban was lifted and North Korea’s first (and only) mobile service provider, Koryolink, was founded as a joint venture by the Egyptian Orascom company and a local communication agency. The project received an august endorsement: in 2011 Orascom CEO even had a personal audience with Kim Jong Il.
The Koryolink network has grown in leaps and bounds: from 90,000 subscribers in late 2009 to one million in early 2012 and two million by the summer of 2013. Subscribers comprise some 8% of the country’s total population and it seems they are neither deterred by the copious amount of paperwork (individual subscriptions take several weeks to finalize) or by the high prices for handsets and calls.
But Koryolink handsets can be used only within certain areas: a phone normally does not normally work outside the city or province where it is registered. Clearly the government does not want people from different areas to exchange news and stories too easily.
The hi-tech glamour of North Korea’s mobile phone infrastructure should not distract our attention from another and possibly more significant phenomena: the growth of the traditional land-line network.
While statistics are scarce and unreliable, the anecdotal evidence clearly indicates that in the past decade there was a dramatic increase in the number of individual land-line phones. In most North Korean cities the ownership of a telephone line suddenly ceased to be a sign of privilege. In Pyongyang today between one third and one half of all households seemingly have access to land-line phones.
Another issue is access to the computers. In the Western popular imagination North Korea is an impoverished and starving nation which cannot possibly have any significant number of computers. While North Korea is certainly poor, desktop computers are present there and in remarkably large numbers. In most cases, used computers are cheaply bought in China and then re-sold to customers in North Korea.
No data is publicly available, but from talks with defectors coming from more affluent parts of the country it is estimated that some 10% of households now have computers at home. Interestingly, a privately owned PC has become a powerful status symbol – even in a remote countryside school, an old computer is likely sitting on the principal’s desk.
Computers are kept under constant surveillance. All computers must be registered, and Bureau 27 of the State Security conducts random checks on registered machines, with special attention paid to the content of their hard drives. All computers are checked every two to three months. There are reports about restrictions and even complete bans on sale of the USB memory sticks and/or blank CDs, even though it is not clear how efficiently these bans are actually enforced.
Admittedly, North Korean computers are not connected to the Internet. Only foreign embassies and agencies have unlimited – if somewhat expensive – Internet access. Those few North Koreans who due to their nature of work are officially allowed to have e-mail addresses have to undergo a rather complicated procedure every time they check their email. In those rare government agencies which do have an Internet connection, an Internet-enabled computer is installed in a special guarded room, open only to the people with proper security clearance.
A partial substitution for the Internet in North Korea is the Kwangmyong network, a nationwide intranet system that has been in operation since the mid-1990s. It uses similar technologies to those used on the internet, but remains cut from international access to the world wide web. For some time, individual subscription were possible, but now only institutional subscription is allowed. The number of subscribers is unknown, but it was reported that up to one million people have access to the Kwangmyong provided database and domestic e-mail services.
It would be no exaggeration to say that in the last 15 years, North Korea underwent an IT revolution that went by curiously unnoticed by the outside world.
North Koreans now have more opportunities to talk between themselves than ever. In the long run, this is likely to have political consequences. But the North Korean authorities understand the risks and they work hard to cushion the politically negative impact of the ongoing changes. Aside from the censorship and eavesdropping, the North Korean authorities use numerous technical and administrative measures to make it difficult to use the new IT network to spread politically suspicious content.
The North Korean IT policy appears to be almost schizophrenic. On the one hand the state encourages and even subsidizes the growth of these potentially dangerous technologies, on the other hand it strives hard to minimize the political impact – even at the cost of reducing the efficiency of these technologies. Admittedly, taking into account the peculiar position of the North Korean regime, Pyongyang has little if any alternative.
Picture: Korea Central News Agency
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