This undated photo provided by the North Korean government shows the science and technology center located on Ssuk island along the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Ever so cautiously, North Korea is going online. This is all done with a two-tiered system where the trusted elite can surf with relative freedom while the masses are kept inside the national intranet, painstakingly sealed off from the outside world and meticulously surveilled. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (AP Photo)
PYONGYANG, November 9 (AP): Ever so cautiously, North Korea is going online. Doctors can consult via live, online video conferencing, and lectures at prestigious Kim Il Sung University are streamed to faraway factories and agricultural communes. People use online dictionaries and text each other on their smart phones. In the wallets of the privileged are “Jonsong” or “Narae” cards for e-shopping and online banking. Cash registers at major department stores are plugged into the web.
It’s just not the World Wide Web. This is all done on a tightly sealed intranet of the sort a medium-sized company might use for its employees.
The free flow of information is anathema to authoritarian regimes, and with the possible exception of the African dictatorship of Eritrea, North Korea is still the least Internet-friendly country on Earth. Access to the global Internet for most is unimaginable. Hardly anyone has a personal computer or an email address that isn’t shared, and the price for trying to get around the government’s rules can be severe.
But for Kim Jong Un, the country’s first leader to come of age with the Internet, the idea of a more wired North Korea is also attractive. It comes with the potential for great benefits to the nation from information technology — and for new forms of social and political control that promise to be more effective than anything his father and grandfather could have dreamed of. It also allows for the possibility of cyber-attacks on the West.
Pyongyang’s solution is a two-tiered system where the trusted elite can surf the Internet with relative freedom while the masses are kept inside the national intranet, painstakingly sealed off from the outside world, meticulously surveilled and built in no small part on pilfered software.
The regime created, in other words, an online version of North Korea itself.
SURFING THE INTRANET
Rising from Ssuk Island in the Taedong River, which divides Pyongyang east and west, is a building shaped like a colossal atom.
The “knowledge sector” is a key priority for Kim Jong Un, and the sprawling, glassy Sci-Tech Complex, a center for the dissemination of science-related information throughout the country, is one of his signature development projects. It houses North Korea’s biggest e-library, with more than 3,000 terminals where factory workers participate in tele-learning, kids in their bright red scarves watch cartoons and university students do research.
Pak Sung Jin, a 30-year-old postgraduate in chemistry, came to work on an essay. It’s a weekday and the e-library is crowded.
Unlike most North Koreans, Pak has some experience with the Internet, though on a supervised, need-only basis. If Pak needs anything from the Internet, accredited university officials will find it for him. As a scholar and a scientist, Pak says, it’s his patriotic duty to be on top of the most up-to-date research.
He echoes the official condemnation that the Internet has been poisoned by the American imperialists and their stooges. “There ought to be a basic acceptance the Internet should be used peacefully,” he says.
Today, he is relying on the Internet’s North Korean alter ego, the national intranet.
Below a red label that states his black “Ullim” desktop computer was donated by Dear Respected Leader Kim Jong Un, what’s on Pak’s screen is for North Korean eyes only. The IP address, 10.76.1.11, indicates he’s on the walled-off network North Koreans call “Kwangmyong,” which means brightness or light.
Using the “Naenara” browser — the name means “my country” but it’s a modified version of FireFox — Pak visits a restaurant page, his university website, and cooking and online shopping sites.
There are very few actual sites on Kwangmyong. An official at the Sci-Tech Center said they number 168.
They are spread across separate networks for government agencies, schools and libraries, and companies. It’s all domestically run, though government-approved content culled from the Internet can be posted by administrators, primarily for researchers like Pak.
North Korea’s national intranet concept is unique and extreme even when compared with other information-wary countries. China and Cuba, for example, are well known for the extent of control the government exerts over what citizens can see. But that is done primarily through censorship and blocking, not complete separation.
Like most North Korean computers, the desktops at the Sci-Tech Complex run on the “Red Star” operating system, which was developed by the Korea Computer Center from Linux open-source coding.
Red Star 3.0 has the usual widgets: the Naenara browser, email, a calendar and time zone settings, even “kPhoto” (with an icon that looks a lot like iPhoto). Older versions featured a Windows XP user interface but it now it has a Mac design, right down to the “spinning beach ball” wait icon.
Versions of Red Star that have made it out of North Korea and into the hands of foreign coding experts also reveal some rather sinister, and for most users invisible, features.
Any attempt to change its core functions or disable virus checkers results in an automatic reboot cycle. Files downloaded from USBs are watermarked so that authorities can identify and trace criminal or subversive activity, a security measure that takes aim at the spread of unauthorized content from South Korea, China and elsewhere.
Red Star also uses a trace viewer that takes regular screenshots of what is being displayed. The screenshots can’t be deleted or accessed by the typical user but are available for checking if a trained government official decides to take a look.
Outside North Korea, Android phones have a similar trace-viewer feature, noted Will Scott, who taught computer science at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2013 and is now a doctoral student at the University of Washington. But the Red Star version reflects the regime’s very specific surveillance and violation-busting priorities. It doesn’t collect much more than the Android would; however, it is designed to make getting at that information easier for a local authority who isn’t an expert programmer.
Scott said the North has been “very effective” in using such technology to serve its goals.
Nat Kretchun, deputy director of the Open Technology Fund, said the kinds of censorship and surveillance software in Red Star and the mobile operating systems of phones and tablets reveal a new information control strategy.
Under Kim Jong Un’s predecessors, the flow of information was primarily controlled through a resource-intensive human network — the State Security Ministry’s “thought police,” for example, or Pyongyang’s iconic traffic controllers — that kept tabs on what people were up to. But the advent of the Internet and advances in communication technology poked holes in that strategy, particularly among the better educated, younger and more affluent, the very segment of society that could be most likely to pose a political threat.
So, while maintaining its old school tactics on the ground and enforcing the blackout of the global Internet, North Korean officials have learned to adapt by using the online devices themselves as yet another tool for surveillance.
“In North Korea cell phones and intranet-enabled devices are on balance pro-surveillance and control,” said Kretchun, who has been studying North Korea’s relationship to the Internet for years.