Conventional wisdom never gets you very far when you’re trying to understand the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Take, for example, the bizarre, self-contained universe that is the North Korean internet. In the past few weeks, there’s been a spike in chatter about the House of Kim’s Web presence. First came speculation about what North Korean netizens were being told about the botched missile launch, then came self-satisfied mockery of the $15 page template the regime bought for its English-language site. The takeaway might seem pretty simple: the DPRK’s network is censored and silly, like a dime-store version of China’s. But the reality is much weirder. “Maybe only one-tenth of the online freedom you see in China is present in North Korea,” said Kongdan Oh, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
That’s not because the censors are tougher. It’s because North Korea built its own internet.
The vast majority of North Korean surfers have never actually seen the Web. At libraries and educational facilities, they log on to something called Kwangmyong (roughly translated as “bright”). It’s been around since the early 2000s and it’s a completely closed intranet system, operating via fiber optic cable. It most likely has no more than a few dozen sites, most of them for education or propaganda.
Cuba has a similar system and Iran is contemplating one, but Kwangmyong is more tightly controlled than either of those. Think of it as the global Internet’s pocket-sized, dystopian reflection. “I haven’t heard of Internet sites being made available on the domestic intranet,” said Martyn Williams, a longtime technology analyst and head of North Korea Tech. “Some content is taken from the Internet, but I’ve only heard of technical documents, books and educational material.” Even experts like Williams only know about Kwangmyong in bits and pieces. After all, that’s part of the network’s totalitarian genius: in addition to preventing users from gazing beyond it, you have to physically enter North Korea to see inside it.
But of course, any trip to the Hermit Kingdom is so tightly choreographed that you can’t fully trust what an outside observer gets to see. For example, the AP’s Jean H. Lee witnessed North Korean students using flat-screen monitors and Photoshop last year. But Williams says the latest images from domestic DPRK television (which he sees via satellite) tell a very different story. “All the PCs appear to be running Windows Explorer and the websites look relatively basic,” he said. “Although it’s difficult to figure out if that’s because the code is stuck in mid-nineties HTML or due to the lack of ads, Flash boxes, fancy navigation and the like.” None of this is to say the global Internet has no presence in North Korea. Earlier this month, the DPRK got its second-ever hookup to the Internet, thanks to a link through Intelstat, a Washington-based satellite operator. That comes on top of an existing connection via a Chinese telecom company, established in 2010.
Before 2010, the country had no full-fledged online link to the rest of the planet. In a uniquely North Korean bit of absurdity, the government most likely maintained its foreign-facing official website by telling subordinates in Japan or China what to put on it. It was a nuclear nation with no stable Internet access. Things have progressed in the past two years, but if you’re inside the DPRK and want to get on the global Web, you have to fall into one of three categories. Foreign journalists have been known to get access — great access, in fact. In October 2010, when 80 or so reporters were there for the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s founding, unrestricted connections abounded at the hotel where they were housed.
Also believed to have relatively free rein is the DPRK’s growing army of hackers. To a large extent, it’s a child army. According to a prominent defector, there’s a “pyramid-like prodigy recruiting system” that plucks bright students for the regime’s “cyberwarrior” program. They allegedly train for years (with stints in Russia or China for cyberwarfare master classes) before joining the ominously named “Unit 121” hacker squad in Pyongyang. Other than that, the only suspected users of the global Web are a very small number of government bureaucrats. After all, someone has to keep up the DPRK’s social media presence. The Uriminzokkiri (“our nation”) Twitter and YouTube accounts sprouted up in 2010 and have been a resource for propaganda and odd online curios ever since. There’s no agreed-upon explanation for North Korean online tech’s expansion since 2010. Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean propaganda, has speculated that it’s been part of a propaganda effort to promote Kim Jong-un as a tech-forward thinker. But Kongdan Oh doubts that. “It’s just undeniable, 21st century trickle-down change,” she said.
And the change is still coming very slowly. Although exact numbers aren’t available, the vast majority of the North Korean populace has never actually used a computer. Indeed, after years of reporting on the DPRK, journalist Barbara Demick concluded that “most North Koreans are unaware of the existence of the Internet.” Williams is slightly more optimistic. “The evening news regularly mentions when foreign web sites say something nice about the country,” he says. “So people are probably familiar with the words ‘Internet’ and ‘website,’ but they might not know what they mean. They certainly wouldn’t have an appreciation for the scale and complexity of the Internet.”
To put that last statement in context, think of it this way: imagine finding out you’ve only ever had access to 0.0000001% of the total Internet. That most of the planet is downloading things 60 times faster than you ever have. That, in addition to the 366 million sites you’ve ever been able to visit from your MacBook, there are more than 2 quadrillion that have been hidden from you. That’s roughly how it would feel for even the most seasoned Kwangmyong user to use Google for the first time.