North Korea: On the net in world's most secretive nation

A man uses a computer in Pyongyang, North Korea Only select members of society, known as "elites" get to use North Korean internet

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What is it like to surf the Internet in the most secretive country on Earth? The short answer is - strange, at least by the rest of the world's standards. But as North Koreans begin to put their lives at risk just to connect to the outside world, it could mark a dramatic moment in the country's history.

There's a curious quirk on every official North Korean website. A piece of programming that must be included in each page's code.

Its function is straightforward but important. Whenever leader Kim Jong-un is mentioned, his name is automatically displayed ever so slightly bigger than the text around it. Not by much, but just enough to make it stand out.

It's just one facet of the "internet" in North Korea, a uniquely fascinating place.

Enlarged Kim Jong Un in text The names of Kim Jong-un and former leaders are slightly bigger on North Korean sites

In a country where citizens are intentionally starved of any information other than government propaganda, the internet too is dictated by the needs of the state - but there is an increasing belief that this control is beginning to wane.

"The government can no longer monitor all communications in the country, which it could do before," explains Scott Thomas Bruce, an expert on North Korea who has written extensively about the country.

"That is a very significant development."

Year 101

There's just one cybercafe in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang.

Anyone logging on at the cafe would find themselves at a computer that isn't running Windows, but instead Red Star - North Korea's own custom-built operating system, reportedly commissioned by the late Kim Jong-il himself.

A pre-installed readme file explains how important it is that the operating system correlates with the country's values.

Red Star OS on a computer in North Korea Computers in North Korea run Red Star, a customised operating system

The computer's calendar does not read 2012, but 101 - the number of years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country's former leader whose political theories define policy decisions.

Normal citizens do not get access to the "internet". That privilege is left to a select number in the country, known as elites, as well as some academics and scientists.

What they see is an internet that is so narrow and lacking in depth it resembles more an extravagant company intranet than the expansive global network those outside the country know it to be.

USB balloons


According to Daily NK's Chris Green, one of the many innovative ways being used to get information into North Korea involves attaching USB memory sticks to balloons, and floating them across the border.

These sticks often contain South Korean programming - such as soap operas - and also the Korean language version of Wikipedia.

It means that while most North Koreans do not have access to the internet, they can still use these USB sticks to get information about the world beyond their border.

DailyNK is a website based in South Korea which publishes first-hand accounts of North Koreans both inside and outside the country.

"Time and time again we hear stories of which James Bond would be proud," said Mr Green in a recent presentation.

"Cellphones hidden in plastic bags and buried on hillsides far outside towns and cities, only being retrieved in order to make a single call, a call that must not last more than two minutes if the source is to avoid detection by the army of mobile electro-magnetic radiation detectors deployed by the Ministry of State Security."

"The system they've set up is one that they can control and tear down if necessary," explains Mr Bruce.

The system is called Kwangmyong, and is administered by the country's lone, state-run internet service provider.

According to Mr Bruce, it consists mainly of "message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media". Unsurprisingly, there's no sign of Twitter.

"For a lot of authoritarian governments who are looking at what is happening in the Middle East," says Mr Bruce, "they're saying rather than let in Facebook, and rather than let in Twitter, what if the government created a Facebook that we could monitor and control?"

The Red Star operating system runs an adapted version of the Firefox browser, named Naenara, a title it shares with the country's online portal, which also has an English version.

Typical sites include news services - such as the Voice of Korea - and the official organ of the state, the Rodong Sinmun.

But anyone producing content for this "internet" must be careful.

Reporters Without Borders - an organisation which monitors global press freedom - said some North Korean "journalists" had found themselves sent to "revolutionisation" camps, simply for a typo in their articles.

Beyond the Kwangmyong intranet, some North Koreans do have full, unfiltered internet access.

However, it is believed this is restricted to just a few dozen families - most directly related to Kim Jong-un himself.

'Mosquito net'

North Korea's reluctance to connect citizens to the web is counteracted by an acceptance that, as with trade, it needs to open itself up slightly if it is to continue to survive.

While China has its infamous "great firewall" - which blocks out the likes of Twitter and, from time to time the BBC website - North Korea's technology infrastructure is described as a "mosquito net", allowing only the bare essentials both in and out.

And it's with mobile that the mosquito net is most porous.

North Korean students work on their computers at Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang Sanctioned North Korean websites typically contain news - and are also available in English

While there is an official mobile network, which does not offer data connections or international calls, North Koreans are increasingly getting hold of Chinese mobile phones, smuggled across the border.

The handsets generally work within about 10km (6 miles) of the border between the two countries - but not without considerable danger.

"The level of risk that people are taking now would be unthinkable 20 years ago," says Nat Kretchun, co-author of a groundbreaking report into the changing media environment in North Korea.

The paper, entitled A Quiet Opening, interviewed 420 adults who had defected from the country. Among their stories was a glimpse at the lengths people would go to use these illegal mobile phones.

"In order to make sure the mobile phone frequencies are not being tracked, I would fill up a washbasin with water and put the lid of a rice cooker over my head while I made a phone call," said one interviewee, a 28-year-old man who left the country in November 2010.

Advert for Koryolink North Korea's mobile service offers 3G connection speeds - but no internet

"I don't know if it worked or not, but I was never caught."

While the man's scientific methodology is questionable, his fear was certainly warranted.

"Possession of illegal cellphones is a very major crime," explains Mr Bruce.

NK jargon buster


This is North Korea's intranet, a closed system that those lucky enough to have access to can browse. Among the content are news websites, messageboards and other chat functions. Only the "elites" - members of high social standing - are permitted to use it, as well as some scientists and academics.


Koryolink is the official North Korean mobile network. Administered by Egyptian firm Orascom, it boasts over one million subscribers. However, it is not possible to make international calls on the service, nor can users access mobile internet.


Meaning My Country, Naenara is the name given to the main information portal on the North Korean intranet, as well as the specially designed version of the Mozilla Firefox browser.

Red Star OS

The Red Star operating system, used by computers in North Korea, is built on Linux, the popular open source software used by many in the wider world. Its introduction music is believed to be based on a classic Korean folk song, Arirang.

"The government has actually bought sensor equipment to try and track down people who are using them.

"If you use them, you want to use them in a highly populated area, and you want to be using them for a short amount of time."

Honest information

During his leadership, Kim Jong-il would parade hundreds of tanks through the streets to show himself as a "military genius".

Many observers say that his son, Kim Jong-un, must in contrast show himself to have an astute technological mind, bringing hi-tech enhancements to the lives of his citizens.

But each step on this path brings the people of North Korea something they've not had before - honest information, which can have a devastating effect on secretive nations.

"I don't see an open door towards an Arab Spring coming that way any time soon," Mr Bruce says.

"But I do think that people are now expecting to have access to this technology - and that creates an environment of personal expectation that cannot be easily rolled back."

With thanks to Flickr user comradeanatollii for the image of Red Star OS.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Iran banning VPNs and failing, and now this. Good stuff. The thing about all totalitarian regimes is that eventually they do get overthrown, especially the ones that panic and switch off the internet completely.
    I know that a certain copyright trolling industry would like to shut down VPN and data communications as well. North Korea ironically no doubt has the lowest levels of piracy in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Perpetuation of what you all know to be true here persists irrespective of other countries reasons. Identically to their countries. Posts which get removed are generally not indicative of misbehavior, more indicative of world problems which cannot be solved unless the posts are made and viewed by someone, we know not how many or few post what we do, ever, when strange situations are a life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Balanceseeker - what on earth are you on about? Maybe one post only to describe your point?

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Hmm, yes, that one 'this' country might let through.
    Dont bite, just think logically, that many foreigners call us arrogant has been proven time and again to have valid root meaning, when revelation of other cultures reasoning is eventually shown.

    But what I am saying is you cannot **** the arrogance out of us, not entirely, I disallow it til I fade. I suppose I term **** incorrectly to you

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    I do hope that the irony of the moderators actions are not lost on the BBC management. Comments on this story - about censorship & lack of free speech - are removed simply because censors disagree with a political view. No counter-point is made, no refuting facts are offered. The comments are simply removed.

    No doubt, this comment will be removed shortly also.


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