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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Netflix style video-on-demand services via quasi-internet protocol television (IPTV) have come to North Korea, state broadcaster the Korea Central Television (KCTV) showed on Tuesday.
A set-top box named ‘Manbang’, which means ‘everywhere’ or ‘every direction’, enables viewers to replay documentary films about the leadership and learn Russian and English languages, using IPTV services.
If true, the ‘Manbang’ represents a stunning development in domestic North Korean television technology, considering the highly limited availability of internet in the country.
The number of secure internet servers per million people in the DPRK was rated as zero in 2015, according to statistics from the World Bank and Netcraft. The world’s average is 209, with data showing South Korea to have 2,320 secure servers per million people.
With the device, viewers can watch five different TV channels in real-time such as KCTV, Mansudae Television, Ryongnamsan TV, and find information related to the leader’s activities and Juche ideology. Users can also read articles from the newspaper Rodong Sinmun and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The box also allows viewers to search for programs by typing in the title, or by browsing through categories, offering similar functionality to Netflix in the United States.
“The information and communications (IOT) technology is based upon two-way communications,” Kim Jong Min, head of the center in charge of providing information and technology, said in the KCTV report.
“If a viewer wants to watch, for instance, an animal movie and sends a request to the equipment, it will show the relevant video to the viewer…this is two-way communications,” Kim explained.
But Eric Johnson, an independent researcher with experience analyzing the North’s information ecosystem, said there was an important difference between IPTV and VOD, the two technologies described in the KCTV report.
“Conventionally, IPTV refers to streaming via the internet a conventional over-the-air (normally terrestrially broadcast, or satellite broadcast, or cable-TV-broadcast) TV channel in real time.”
Such a service would be similar to a viewer in the U.S. watching CNN over an internet connection, in real-time, he explained.
In contrast, VOD would enable the “end user … to choose what to watch” like “Netflix / Hulu / Roku / YouTube,” he said. “The distinction between these—the very concept of a ‘conventional TV channel’—is breaking down, but that’s what these words mean so far.”
One South Korea-based observer said it appeared the technology looked legitimate.
“When judging from the content of the video, the North (appears to have) technology related to IPTV,” a South Korean professor at a national university said on condition of anonymity.
“However, it is hard to assess the quality of services and internet network,” the professor added, unable to speak to media on record about North Korea issues.
EASY TO INSTALL
The installation process is simple, state media showed.
“Firstly, connect a phone line to the high-speed modem, and then connect a cable box to the national network,” KCTV said. “(Then) connect a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) port of a cable box to the television, plug in and turn on. That’s all.”
Viewers can reportedly use the service not only in Pyongyang but also in Sinuiju, North Phyongan Province and Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province.
The demands for the equipment are “particularly” high in Sinuiju and are increasing, and there are several hundred users in the region, KCTV reported.
“Since Sinuiju is a border and gateway city, people have trouble in watching TV due to radio interference. However, there is no such error now (after introducing the new system),” Joo Dae Hyun, a senior official at communications agency of North Phyongan Province told KCTV.
In the footage, the device was described as making the lives of citizens and children flourish.
“Children tended to pester to show new interesting videos again after their release, but we had difficulty in dealing with it,” Kim Geun Hee, a teacher at Sariwon orphanage said in the report. “However, we are happy since we are now able to show films to them again, and children enjoy it”.
Featured Image: Korean Central Television (KCTV)