The Internet is still young, and North Korea remains a hermit Kimdom. But that’s a losing wicket. The World Wide Web brooks no exceptions. Already it has utterly transformed both the quantity and quality of our information about the DPRK, as indeed about everything else.
To those of us who remember when knowledge only came printed on paper, the difference is staggering. What was the preserve of a handful of specialists, published in arcane tomes and obscure periodicals found in few libraries, is now available to just about anyone anywhere in the world – except North Korea, of course – at the mere click of a mouse. That is amazing.
Such a democratization of insight is, of course, progress. Yet evolution is always a Darwinian process. Overall the net gain is huge, but there have been losses and casualties along the way.
So, dear reader, let me take you on a trip down memory lane if you are of riper years – or if you’re young, on a voyage of discovery. North Korea itself is a dinosaur, clinging fiercely on while elsewhere mammals rule the planet. Yet, ironically, the DPRK has outlived some of the first websites which set out to cover it. So perhaps those are the real dinosaurs, though as we shall see the reasons for their extinction vary: it’s not always a case of survival of the fittest.
As you probably know, the online equivalent of the fossil record is a marvelous resource called Archive.org. I had no idea who ran it till I read this in the FT recently, but God bless them for this vital work. You can’t expect to always find every single last page ever, but they do their darnedest to ensure nothing is lost. 407 billion Web pages filed so far, and counting.
Thanks to them, this article can be interactive fun if you like. When you’ve finished reading, or as you go along, check out some of these dead sites and see what you can find. Be patient: some pages take a while to redirect or load. And don’t be too dismayed when there are gaps.
AB: AMERICAN, BELGIAN
First up, let’s mention two websites set up with ambitions to be comprehensive, though their approaches differed. Remember NKZone? But beware of imitations. Assorted usurpers have since nicked that name, ranging from a Taiwanese software park to Japanese pop girls.
None of these is related to the real thing. As she recounts, Rebecca MacKinnon, now with the New America Foundation and author of a book on Internet freedom, set up NKZone in 2004 as a blog forum open to all. Blogs as such were a new concept back then, and this was an invaluable resource. Not only did it become an accumulating database on the DPRK as more people discovered it and contributed, but it was also a way for those of us in the field to find and talk to each other. Though short-lived – its heyday was in 2005-2007, and it died in 2008 – NKZone played a vital role. Rebecca moved on, but all DPRK-watchers are in her debt.
A second pioneer, slightly earlier in fact, was Pyongyang Square. Founded in 2002 by Tom Tobback, a Belgian engineer based in Beijing, this was more of a one-man show. Its declared aim was to offer “a balanced and objective view on DPRK-related developments.” For a time it did a pretty good job: the site map gives an indication of the wide range of topics covered.
Another difference was that while NKZone was free, Pyongyang Square soon began charging a subscription. I for one forked out quite a lot of euros – but presumably not many others did, for in early 2005 the updates ceased, without explanation or refund. Annoying at the time, but Mr. TT now does good works in Hong Kong. So let’s chalk it up to experience, and thank him for the two years when Pyongyang Square was another useful North Korea resource. You can still browse it at Archive.org, but take care: this gives a misleading impression that the site is still extant. It did stay up online for a long time, but once again beware of counterfeits. As of now, bizarrely, the same name is used by a Japanese website whose subject seems to be wigs!
While interested Westerners are a minority, one place you’d expect to be a hotbed of Internet info about North Korea is obviously South Korea: a country as famously wired and always-on as its northern sibling is determinedly offline. But that contrast isn’t the sole paradox here.
There is indeed a ton of data on the DPRK emanating from the ROK. Most of it is in Korean, which is fair enough – though a case can be made that Seoul’s lively but sometimes also fetid blogosphere suffers from being too inward-looking, unlike some other Asian countries where people communicate more readily in English or even use it as their first language of choice.
Be that as it may, here too I mourn the passing of once-useful websites on North Korea which are no more. What makes it sadder and puzzling is that these haven’t ceased to exist: They’ve simply decided the rest of us don’t matter. In a surprising and regressive trend, several South Korean sites on the North which used to publish in English now do so exclusively in Korean.
Take Kotra, for instance. As you’ll know if your interests extend to South Korea, this is the (not quite literal) acronym of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, an affiliate of the ROK trade ministry. Searching “North Korea” on their English website now yields articles published by others, in Korean. You’d never guess that Kotra had its own North Korea team, which used to publish a key resource on the DPRK economy under the cosy title NK Club.
Here Archive.org teases. Or maybe I’ve just not cracked it. One link shows activity during 2003-05, but none of these pages seem to open. A different link gives a long list of potential pages, some of which yield tantalizing article titles giving a flavor of what we had and now have lost. But again, I can’t open any of the actual documents. Maybe you’ll have better luck.
Also active in this field was Hyundai Research Institute (HRI), think-tank of the eponymous chaebol (conglomerate). Hyundai today is not what it was. Unlike long-time rival Samsung, still one single mighty octopus with tentacles everywhere, the Hyundai group now is just the rump left after the best bits, like cars and shipbuilding, have been spun off as separate firms.
ENGLISH TO KOREAN-ONLY
What remains includes Hyundai Asan, which under group founder Chung Ju-yung pioneered business with North Korea – but is now bleeding red ink as its flagship Mount Kumgang resort has been mothballed since 2008, its assets confiscated by Pyongyang. Lack of funds is presumably why HRI no longer even has an English website, and long ago stopped putting out what used to be its extremely useful quarterly journal, boldly entitled The Economics of Korean Reunification. (I declare an interest, having had three articles published in its pages.) This I can’t find archived anywhere, which is a pity as it would still be a valuable resource.
Then there are the media, or were. The Chosun Ilbo, the leading right-wing Seoul daily, takes an active if unfriendly interest in North Korea, as you’ll see if you read Korean. NK.Chosun has been around since the 1990s, and used to publish a full English version. I haven’t found a systematic way to access the latter, but this link gives more than 11,000 URLs – with no clue, alas, as to what each is. Opening one at random yields a database of DPRK elites circa 2001; the sidebars allow onward navigation to a rich plethora of further pages on many subjects.
This too is a resource whose loss is regrettable. Unlike Hyundai, the Chosun makes money – so you’d think they’d be keen to bang the drum internationally against the North. Not that it’s all propaganda. The tourism pages even give phone numbers for four Pyongyang hospitals. And there’s a very handy DPRK timeline – but it stops in 2001, as I think the whole site did.
I could go on. The best (imho) ROK daily, the center-right JoongAng Ilbo, also used to have a North Korea website in English, run by a particularly good journalist. Or am I dreaming? – for I can find no trace of this now, and can’t remember either the site’s or the man’s name. Perhaps some kindly NK News reader could turn archive sleuth and throw light on this?
In conclusion, these blasts from the past are of two different kinds. NKZone and Pyongyang Square are history, but Kotra and NK.Chosun are very much alive – in Korean. So I end with an appeal to South Korean institutions: Please share with the rest of us, like you used to!
In her recent Dresden speech, President Park Geun-hye called on the wider world to take an interest in Korea and its unification. Gladly, ma’am – but then please tell Kotra to help us out by reopening NK Club for English speakers. Otherwise people might get the idea that South Koreans think North Korea belongs to them and to no one else. That would be a big mistake.
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