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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea is becoming increasingly digitized: In recent years, official websites promoting the services of state tourism companies have cropped up on the web. The DPRK’s Foreign Trade Publishing House puts out a quarterly online magazine that advertises North Korean products for export. Kim Il Sung University took up an online presence in hopes of attracting students from foreign countries, and an online shopping hub promotes locally-produced commodities.
But despite North Korea’s ever-expanding efforts to promote its products and services overseas, a fundamental problem sets back the vast majority of this work: email addresses that bounce all communications.
North Korean factories, service providers and educational facilities all include emails on their websites, brochures and business cards. But emailing them will yield nothing but a dead end.
Email one service about a huge order of ginseng tea you’re keen to make and an immediate response will follow: “Diagnostic-Code: smtp; 501 5.7.1 Inter-Address is not match.”
For all the energy North Korean officials spend designing persuasive promotional materials, the absence of a viable email puts DPRK vendors in a highly uncompetitive spot – and that’s not even considering the hurdles caused by a wide-ranging global sanctions regime.
Messages going to North Korean email addresses tend to bounce by design, according to those familiar with the system.
“In general, the default position seems to be [that] they are blocked, with exceptions then made,” Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, told NK News.
Those exceptions, it appears, need to be agreed to and authorized before an email can even be received.
“The sender’s address needs to be registered on the DPRK side in order to get through to a specific recipient, meaning you have to be cleared for every single DPRK email address you want to contact,” a regular participant in cultural exchange programs with the North told NK News.
However, the automated failure messages don’t give any hint that whitelisting is necessary to get in contact with a vendor, supplier or service provider. This means that many potential buyers are likely to lose interest at the first very first hurdle: the initial communication.
“This system is extraordinarily stupid – not to mention counterproductive – since it hurts the DPRK side most of all,” the cultural exchange participant said.
Worse, it’s unclear whether those on the North Korean side even know what they’re missing.
“From the recipient’s point of view, a bounced email wouldn’t alert them unless the server is configured to do so,” said Ian Bennett from Choson Exchange, a Singaporean not-for-profit. “Everything looks okay — there is no obvious sign that anything needs to change.”
Anyone who really wants to buy a product or service from North Korea must either be whitelisted or have the motivation to try alternative emails or other methods of contact in a last-ditch effort to close the deal.
Most of the DPRK entities’ listed emails also include telephone numbers. But the best way to get whitelisted is to meet a North Korean contact, according to a source who regularly visits the DPRK.
“Any business with North Korea must have an initial face-to-face meeting with a North Korean representative,” the source told NK News. “That’s how all emails work.”
For the DPRK side, the process has the benefit of “weeding out people who simply ask for the sake of asking and wasting time,” the source explained. “Real buyers will try anything to meet a North Korean … and they know it.”
The “embassy will then get some guy to contact you — usually someone who gets a ‘diplomatic’ position but is really just a businessman,” the source added. “After that, it works — simple.”
But even when added to the list, things are not always so straightforward.
“This is not a guarantee of immediate unmonitored delivery to the email recipient, but it significantly speeds things up,” Bennett said, referring to whitelisting.
Outbound mail from the DPRK also requires similar efforts.
“For North Koreans sending mail externally, my understanding is that permission must be sought, even for those who do have access to the internet,” Bennett said. “This is one of the reasons why you may not receive the same sort of courtesy email responses and acknowledgments that you might expect elsewhere.”
While it’s impossible to know exactly just how much business is lost as a result of DPRK email standards each year, the friction likely turns a large number of foreign clients off. It further reveals a fundamental tension between the entrepreneurs of North Korea and their seniors working for state security.
“I think what we are seeing here is the collision of two bureaucracies in the DPRK,” said Martyn Williams, who runs the website North Korea Tech. “The companies and trade ministry want the companies to do business, but they can not probably overrule the security services that impose the ban.”
“In an inefficient bureaucracy like North Korea, I doubt there is much chance for them to sit around a table and try and work things out,” Williams added.
Fear of what DPRK citizens might learn through unfettered communication with the outside world is likely a significant motivation for the heavy-handed approach to email restriction.
“The North Koreans probably do this to control what information comes into the country,” Williams said. “If there was no such system, I can imagine NGOs, human rights groups and individuals would be mass sending emails and propaganda to North Korean email boxes every day.”
Bennett of Choson Exchange agreed that the strict measures surrounding email operations are likely part of another “risk-reward calculation similar to that of the stringent customs checks at the border.”
“Content deemed harmful or inappropriate could be easily spread around like electronic samizdat,” he said. “There’s a perceived trade-off between full security at one extreme, with whitelisted addresses only, and fully frictionless international communications and business at the other.”
As a result, the “ramifications of the restrictive email policies are likely set by someone with more of a security focus, who has no insight into the downstream impact,” Bennett continued.
North Korea could also be filtering email in such an aggressive way to save costs.
“In the past, partners of ours have used email systems that charged very high amounts to open single emails, as much as 2 or more euros per email,” said Cockerell of Koryo Tours. “This is a clear disincentive to receive much mail, so they would prefer to get everything at once and to block out anything they didn’t want.”
“That would create a reason to keep it very limited,” he added.
And yet this concentrated control even provides an economic advantage to some, with some diplomatic personnel able to charge outsiders “communications fees” in order to pass messages back and forth to contacts in the DPRK.
“All North Koreans living outside need money to operate,” said the source who regularly visits the country. “They get commissions for acting as the middle man all the time, so it’s a system that works in its own strange way.”
Edited by Kelly Kasulis
North Korea is becoming increasingly digitized: In recent years, official websites promoting the services of state tourism companies have cropped up on the web. The DPRK's Foreign Trade Publishing House puts out a quarterly online magazine that advertises North Korean products for export. Kim Il Sung University took up an online presence in hopes of attracting students from foreign countries, and an online shopping hub promotes locally-produced commodities.
But despite North Korea's ever-expanding efforts to promote its products and services overseas, a fundamental problem sets back the vast majority of this work: email addresses that bounce all communications.