How North Korea controls its Internet
Mon, 21 May 2018 || By Gehan Ghofari

When other communist countries like the People’s Republic of China, Soviet Union, and Cuba “gave up” their isolationist policies, North Korea prevails. Despite the regime’s strict restriction over outside information, digital technology users in North Korea unexpectedly still exist. How is the digital life of the North Korean people like? How does the future peace projection with South Korea may affect North Korea’s digital society? We explore these intriguing questions below.

 

How are mobile phones and Internet accessed by the North Korean people? What for?

Mobile phones were previously a luxurious privilege for the elites. Today, mobile phone services are more common for civilians. In May 2013, there were at least 2 million[1] subscribers using the domestic official service. Phones are an important business tool for the merchant class, but for young people it is probably more of a status symbol.[2]

Besides the official network, some North Korean citizens living near the Chinese border (e.g. Sinuiju, Hyesan, and Hoeryeong) also have illegal access to Chinese mobile networks. Chinese phones are being used to talk to family members living in China and South Korea, and also to arrange trade, pass information back and forth, and even facilitate defections.

Information flow into North Korea can also be delivered through smuggled flash drives and DVDs. It usually contains entertainment materials such as Hollywood movies and South Korean drama. North Korea has their own “Internet”—which is actually an intranet—called Kwangmyong. Its usage requires a special permit and is heavily monitored by the government.

 

Will the Internet strengthen or hinder democracy in North Korea?

Information can be a powerful tool for democratic movements. Digital media has the capability to supply information that provoke citizens to act, as seen in Egypt when information spread across Twitter to inform protesters regarding the protest event(s).[3] But this common pattern seems very hard to occur in North Korea. Information flow in North Korea do exist (coming from various sources such as illegal contacts to outside world, western movies, and South Korean dramas) and even the bond between the state and the people already loosened because of extreme famine in the mid-1990s. Due to famine, the regime was barely able to feed and provide for the people, making the average North Korean citizens relied on themselves and understood that they live in an awful country.

Even if the government is incapable of providing a good living for its citizens, the regime still holds an astonishing control over its citizens. Besides the government watching their people, the regime also encourages its citizens to spy on each other, even since they are in school age.[4] Mobility is also limited as citizens cannot even move to different places inside the country without special permissions.[5] This surveillance stretches further to the digital sphere. The government is reported to use sophisticated technology to keep an eye on every individual using phones and through the Internet.[6][7] All the information they have, with such constraints, presumably push them to think that instead of revolting, it is better to escape the country. On the other hand, the few thousands who have access to the real Internet are parts of the regimes. There is no use to work against all the privilege they are enjoying.

This situation confirms that democracy, or any effort towards it, does not exist yet in North Korea. In spite of increasing information flow, at this point, information stream through digital medium fails to nurture the people’s confrontation against the regime. The authority has been so advance that they even have found ingenious ways to turn digital technologies against any threat, both from the digital and real world.

 

How has the government used social media as a propaganda tool, and how have the people responded?

The North Korean version of Facebook does exist. One American journalist managed to report that the social network is used largely to post birthday messages especially among university students and professors. The features in this North Korean “social media” are very limited compared to the common social media platforms we access today. The “social media” works on a government-controlled network instead of regular 3G connection which is only available for foreigners.[8] Therefore, even if it facilitates communication between citizens, it is almost impossible to begin resistance from such platform. This phenomenon affirms that any channel the people could use is actually used to strengthen the regime.

On the other hand, surprisingly, Kim Jong Un’s regime used popular social media such as Instagram and YouTube for propaganda purposes. YouTube, for example is used to propagate the “greatness” of the country in front of global audiences. It certainly does not attract “hundreds of millions” of supporters as the regime claims, but it does have real and small yet important pool of supporters particularly in South Korea and Japan.[9] Unfortunately, the North Korean YouTube account had been taken down by YouTube because of massive reports. Its Instagram news channel is still available (@northkorea_news). The comment sections are filled with mixed netizens’ reactions such as support, hate, satire, and even debates with the account admin.

 

How will the future peace projection with South Korea implicate the state of digital democracy in the North?

Any direct social change happening in North Korea as a result of the peaceful talks between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in is unlikely to happen soon. The historic meeting that took place in April was mainly a denuclearization discussion,[10] not an ideological change or as limited as openness to digital features—which may affect North Korean social life. We argue that any socio-political change with digital technology’s influence in North Korea must pass through several terms and conditions. First, the Internet that the North Korean people are using must be the real version of the Internet like the rest of the world, not the North Korean version (which is actually a type of intranet). The real Internet escalates communication and the spread of ideas; thus it may scale up the urge to be critical towards their surroundings. Secondly, Kim’s regime must loosen the government’s control over its citizens, so they have more freedom to think and act. Lastly, North Korea’s politics and economy must adapt to the modern world. Without political or economic openness, the people will not be able to even afford the minimum technology required for the Internet to operate. Besides, openness gives digital technology purposes, for instance freedom of doing business, expression, creativity, and acquiring information. Without it, digital technology will be pointless anyway.

Those three points are among the essential foundations of the regime. If denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a priority, then forcing the North Korean government to give up its foundations will not be a friendly approach. Therefore, the world still has to go through a long road before seeing North Korea have a fully functional digital society.

Editors: Atin Prabandari, MA(IR) & Viyasa Rahyaputra, S.IP

 

Picture: Foreign Policy


[1] The number grows over time.

[2] Tudor, D. & Pearson, J. (2015). North Korea Confidential. Singapore: Tuttle, Chapter 6: Communication.

[3] Searlaw, M. (2016). Egypt five years on: was it ever a 'social media revolution'? The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/25/egypt-5-years-on-was-it-ever-a-social-media-revolution [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[4] Shim, E. (2016). North Korea pushing students to step up spying on each other. UPI [online]. Available at:  https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/09/19/North-Korea-pushing-students-to-step-up-spying-on-each-other/9881474309345/ [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[5] Liberty in North Korea, (2018). The People’s Challenges [online]. Available at: https://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/learn-nk-challenges/ [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[6] Chomchuen, W. (2017). How North Korea Is Using Smartphones as Weapons of Mass Surveillance. The Wall Street Journal [online]. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-north-korea-is-using-smartphones-as-weapons-of-mass-surveillance-1512719928 [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[7] Pearson, J. (2017). North Korea uses sophisticated tools to spy on citizens digitally – report. Reuters [online]. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-surveillance/north-korea-uses-sophisticated-tools-to-spy-on-citizens-digitally-report-idUSKBN1690DZ [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[8] Dewey, C. (2013). A rare glimpse of North Korea’s version of Facebook. The Washington Post [online]. Available at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/03/13/a-rare-glimpse-of-north-koreas-version-of-facebook/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d03846622be9 [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[9] Fisher, M. (2015). Yes, North Korea has the internet. Here's what it looks like. Vox [online]. Available at:  https://www.vox.com/2014/12/22/7435625/north-korea-internet [Accessed 11 May 2018].

[10] Smith, N. (2018). Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in commit to Korean 'peace regime' to end nuclear conflict at historic summit. The Telegraph [online]. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/27/kim-jong-un-becomes-first-north-korean-leader-cross-south-65/ [Accessed 11 May 2018].