Academic journal article North Korean Review

The Hermit Kingdom Goes Online ... Information Technology, Internet Use and Communication Policy in North Korea

Academic journal article North Korean Review

The Hermit Kingdom Goes Online ... Information Technology, Internet Use and Communication Policy in North Korea

Article excerpt


In popular perception North Korea is one of the most closed societies in the world and linking North Korea to information technology and the Internet seems to be contradictory. However, reports on cyberattacks from North Korea, a sophisticated weapons program needing underlying information technology skills, and the surprise visit by a former high- ranking Google manager show that information technology and even the Internet play an increasing role in North Korea. Indeed, acquiring information technology skills and applying them has been a priority for a long time. Given the socialist preoccupation with technology as the ultimate tool for growth (as opposed to management and organizational skills), this predilection for information technology is not surprising. It is, however, seriously inhibited by the aforementioned desire for control, since access in particular to worldwide information and the Internet is not easy to control. Now, patterns of Internet use and restrictions can be recognized, which lead to the conclusion that the use of the Internet will slowly increase and that this will bring formidable challenges to North Korea's control system.

This article discusses the emergence of the Internet and information technology and its subsequent applications in North Korea, a topic until now understudied.

The History of Information Technology and Internet in North Korea

The Early Development of Internet in North Korea

North Korea, like other socialist states, has always been obsessed by technological advances, which seemed to promise a way out of perennial economic difficulties. When Kim Il- sung visited Europe in 1984 he became interested in information technology and set the starting point for the development of that sector. At the time he learned more about the industry of microelectronics, leading to the establishment of a long- term plan and by the end of the 1980s, investment was underway. During that time, new colleges were founded that offered degree programs in the field of information technology. With the worldwide growth of the information sector and the boom of the Internet in the 1990s, Kim Jong- il wanted to further develop this industry and in 1999 the Electronic Industry Ministry was founded. By 2000 North Korea launched its first website in English. In the following years more colleges were founded and the use of computers and information technology spread among the country.1 During the 90s, fiber- optic cables were installed to connect major cities and after the 2000 summit meeting between South and North Korea a fiber- optic cable was set up through the DMZ to the South.

North Korea tried to acquire knowledge and technology through various channels, among them a project on distant medical diagnosis and treatment for which they lobbied the World Health Organization for many years. At that time some high-level governmental officials had access to the Internet, mainly to communicate for business reasons with China, Japan, and Russia. In 2000 the North Korean Intranet known as Kwangmyong ("bright") was established. It is used to connect certain research facilities with each other, and it is also used in libraries such as the Grand People's Study Hall in Pyongyang. Apart from that, it also includes a search engine, an email program, and a variety of other homepages mostly filled with scientific information. However, at the time it was founded, access was very limited for the general public and even though it has developed further, it is still infrequently found in private homes and access is limited. Nevertheless the private use of the World Wide Web was something that was allowed only to a small group of "super elite" North Koreans and when the Internet is used by governmental institutions, it is restricted and highly supervised.2

First Steps and Projects

Even though the development of the IT sector seemed to be advancing rapidly, the distribution rate to computers was still very low. …

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