People all around the world enjoy watching Netflix and playing games on their tablets, but how are North Koreans using their very own (reportedly-domestically-made) devices?
NK News has obtained the Taeyang-brand tablet PC, produced by the Mangyongdae Marine (Haeyang) Technology Exchange Company in 2017. The company has received attention in local media recently, having also produced Mirae WiFi and tablet PCs with wireless internet access.
This analysis of the portable device, equipped with pre-installed applications, clearly shows that North Koreans are using their tablets under strict government surveillance — for example, users have to go through a complicated procedure to use the intranet.
On the other hand, the existence of an online application market and other new technology clearly shows that North Korea’s tech sector is making rapid progress.
WHO MANUFACTURED THE TAEYANG?
The Taeyang (Ocean) W713 was manufactured by the Haeyang (Marine) Unha Information Technology Exchange Company in 2017. Notably, it runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat, which was first released in December 2013.
The DPRK tablet — which is available in Korean, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese — comes with USB connecting cables, a USB converter, adapter, and Chinese-produced earphones. Interestingly, English is not available in either the language and keyboard settings.
Users can use the tablet to do office work by browsing and editing documents and charts, read e-books and coursebooks, study foreign languages, and watch TV, according to the description on the box.
The Taeyang W713’s certificate shows that the manufacturer is the Chunggu Haeyang (Marine) Technology Exchange Company, which is under the Central Distribution Bureau for Science and Technology in the DPRK.
The company appears to be an industry leader, having also developed the ‘Mirae’ (Future) Network and the Taeyang 8321, a tablet PC which can connect to Mirae WiFi with a Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card.
The Taeyang appears to be heavily censored, judging by the two certificates in the box.
The ‘radio wave guarantee confirmation document,’ issued by the department of radio control after it inspecting the device on March 11, 2018, gives the brand (Taeyang) and serial number (A33B1-17-B493).
The document also states that the Haeyang Trading Corporation is in charge of sales, showing a connection between the Haeyang Technology Exchange Company and the Haeyang Trading Corporation.
Of particular note is that the ‘censorship certificate for tablet PCs (new products)’ was reportedly issued by Room 79 of the DPRK publication censorship bureau on December 4, 2017.
Room 79 has not yet been mentioned in DPRK state media, though last year South Korea’s Monthly Chosun magazine obtained and reported a document written by “Group 109,” an organization commissioned to clamp down on the North Korean people’s access to foreign information.
In this document, Pyongyang prohibits “trademarks of puppet and other countries and goods with counterfeit trademark uncensored from Room 79 of the publication censorship bureau.”
The censorship certificate included with the Taeyang tablet, along with the report from Monthly Chosun, serves as further evidence of the existence of Room 79.
HOW TO ACCESS THE INTRANET
The North Korean state’s attempts to control access to information is also reflected in the cumbersome process that North Koreans must go through to connect to the intranet, which they can access through a built-in “authentication system for intranet” application.
The Taeyang appears to be heavily censored
To access the intranet through the application, developed by the Pyongyang Information Technology Bureau, users must first fill out a lengthy application form.
Instructions are as stated below:
- Click the ‘application form,’ enter related information, click ‘create application form,’ and save the application file in the internal storage medium
- Users must obtain an IP address by physically connecting to the national computer network
- Click ‘changes in network connection’ and select the network interface connected to the national computer network (intranet)
- Click ‘change settings’ and proceed with set-up for subscriber authentication
- You can access the data on the national computer network after connecting to the network and obtaining certification for subscription by clicking the ‘access’ button
- After successfully connecting, you can click the “change password” and change the password of the subscription registered with the authentication server.
Concerning the application form, users must answer some questions, including if the device belongs to an organization or individual and if this is a new registration, renewal, or cancellation.
Detailed information about the device, type of device (laptop, desktop, tablet PC), and plans for how the device will be used, along with the personal information of the user such as name, birthday, gender, job position, and home and company telephone numbers, are required as well.
North Koreans must also select the address of the authenticated device by region. Regions include Pyongyang, Kaesong, and Nampho City as well as Kangwon, Jagang, North and South Phyongan Province.
Despite the North Korean government’s control of online access, ‘My Companion 4.1’ shows that users can buy software through an online app store which appears to be similar to Google Play and Apple’s App Store. North Koreans can also purchase applications in person, at a physical store.
My Companion 4.1, manufactured by the Samhung Information Technology (IT) Exchange Company, allows North Koreans to run applications on their mobile phones and tablets.
Through My Companion 4.1 as a platform, users can purchase and open programs, e-books, videos, and games. The application also provides streaming services similar to Netflix, as well as a karaoke program.
“You can purchase and access (the online store) during business trips or anywhere else by signing up to the data communication service,” the program’s introduction reads, adding that users can also download applications via the intranet or at a physical center that provides information services.
The Samhung IT Exchange Company also offers “many products free of charge” while providing a “sharp discount” when customers purchase e-books and recorded videos previously aired on TV “in bulk.”
Nonetheless, it is interesting to see that the DPRK technology company has adopted a simplified e-wallet payment system that allows users to purchase software online.
Users are asked to charge their “scores,” a virtual currency that appears to match the amount in the user’s “Samhung wallet,” by using a Samhung or Jonsong Card. These ‘scores’ are also charged to the wallet for free, although how this works remains unclear.
According to DPRK state media, the Jonsong Card is a debit card issued by the DPRK Central Bank. The Samhung Card is more likely issued by the Samhung IT company, given that the telephone numbers of the distributor are the same as the company’s customer service center.
Users of the Samhung Card enter a verification number, after which 10,000 points is automatically charged every time a purchase is made. Using the Jonsong card, users can input the number of “scores” they want to load up.
As mentioned above, users can purchase software at the online store, but must first join the Koryolink or Kangsong mobile communications network.
NK News previously revealed that Koryolink offers five different data-oriented price plans, but users of My Companion 4.1 are only allowed to choose from rates two to five.
However, users are recommended to download source files by using the intranet or at a physical center providing IT services “free of charge,” as doing so through the mobile communications network may be expensive.
Users can buy software through an online app store, which appears to be similar to Google Play and Apple’s App Store
Of particular note is that applications — which can be used on My Companion 4.1 — are separately provided with an ‘authentication and source file’ format. People must first purchase the ‘authentication file’ — which differs depending on the type of product — to operate source files such as .apk (Android Package), .pdf, .mp3, and .mp4.
This separation appears to be an attempt to prevent illegal duplication: the Samhung company asks users to buy programs made legally, emphasizing that “illegal sales and purchase are not permitted” and warning that the company is not liable for any consequences should the user decide to break the law.
Every product has a different authentication file in accordance with its unique “expected numbers.” Once purchased, the redownloaded of the authentication file is free of charge.
The majority of games in the My Companion 4.1 app are manufactured by the Samhung IT Exchange Company. The company has produced a wide range of battle games including “Solo Mission”, “Samurai Hunting,” “Mopping-up Operation of Japanese Invaders,” “Modern Tank Battle 2.0,” and “Special Operations Force.”
“This is a combat game where [users] can sweep heinous Samurai jerks,” the instructions to “Samurai Hunting” read.
The Chunggu Marine Technology Exchange Company and Ryomyong Tech Company also sell game applications in categories including new releases, top charts, and price.
But there seems to be a lack of compatibility: some games do not work on specific mobile phones, including the Pyongyang series smartphone models 2417, 2418, 2419 as well as tablet PC and mobile phones that have RAM capacity less than 1GB.
Of particular interest is that a variety of applications including PDF viewer, drawing viewer, and ‘College Student Handbook’ are preinstalled on the tablet PC, of which most are not allowed to be exported or purchased by foreigners.
Some examples include the English-Korean dictionary ‘Ahchin 1.0’ which was produced by Achim-Panda Computer Joint Venture Company in 2013 and the ‘English Conversations for Everyday Life 1.0’ manufactured by Koryo Electronic Publishing Company.
Also of note is that the online drug dictionary, developed by Information Exchange Company of Education Commission, is installed on the tablet PC.
The Korean and English names of drugs, recommended pharmacological action, medically treatable diseases, usage, prohibition, side effects, precautions, and the form of drugs are provided in the dictionary.
The Taeyang tablet is also equipped with programs including document editing software manufactured by Haeyang Unha IT Exchange Company, which enables users to “open, edit, print, and save documents at any place.” Users can also open, edit, share, and save documents via its network “at any place and time.”
It is reportedly “fully compatible with document formats of desktop office software, including doc, docx, xls, xlsx, ppt, pptx, and txt.” The program supports all editing functions including table and photo insertion, and the description also notes that as this program is “fully compatible with the email system,” users can “easily send attached files.”
In addition, users can read ebooks through the ‘Library on Information Technology Education,’ including the Microsoft Office 2000 instruction manual, ‘Preventing Hackers,’ ‘Computer Security,’ and basic programming language-related materials including Gambas, Java, Linux, and Qt.
RESTRICTIONS, BUT NEW DEVELOPMENTS
By looking at the 2017 Taeyang tablet we can glean signs of development in North Korea, but also know that there are still many restrictions: the purchase and export of most of these portable internet devices is prohibited to foreigners.
The certificates issued by Room 79 at the DPRK bureau of publications censorship and department of radio control, as well as the intricate authentication mechanism for intranet access, are some examples of restrictions.
Nonetheless, the emergence of the online wallet and online application market suggest potential developments. Pre-installed applications including games, dictionaries, the PDF viewer, and collection of E-books related to technology also hint that the tablet PC could be used for education and entertainment.
In part two, we will be comparing DPRK media coverage of the Taeyang 8321 Tablet PC, which was produced in 2018 and has access to the locally-developed Mirae Wi-Fi, with the Taeyang W713 model.
We will also examine the diverse functions of the Taeyang 8321, focusing on the platform for the online education system to the distribution of local movies.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News