Teaching Computer Science in North Korea: an American's Story
​All images (If not stated otherwise.) Will Scott via ​Instagram. License: CC BY 4.0. 

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Teaching Computer Science in North Korea: an American's Story

A former Google employee taught at the American-run, boys-only Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
February 3, 2015, 4:30pm

For a computer scientist, Will Scott has a pretty fascinating Instagram account. His posts, sometimes overlaid with a subtle filter, tell the surprising story of an American computer expert who taught North Korea's next technophilic generation for a few months at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

The former Google employee recently recounted his experiences on a large stage at the ​Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg. He especially delighted the congregated German hacker community with his hands-on reports about North Korean tablets and details concerning the People's Republic's prehistoric-seeming internet censorship.

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Scott not only dutifully familiarized his students at the elite university with databanks and operating systems, he also brought back the North Korean operating system, ​RedStar 3.0, and other obscure local souvenirs to his hometown of Seattle. With his pictures and ​stories, he attempts as calmly as possible to capture the academic environment and everyday student life to non-judgmentally approach the reality of the North Korean capital. If nothing else, he was so taken with the country that he would like to return sometime, naturally.

Wills nordkoreanische IT-Studenten lösen gemeinsam ein Problem am Laptop.

Public Enemy at Elite University

On to the political controversy: Is Scott a traitor for feeding Kim Jong-Un's atomic-bomb-wielding, future generation of elites with technical knowhow for the planned destruction of of South Korea? Or was his stay merely soft diplomacy or even foreign aid?

"It's one of a few places that has its own national internet that nobody knows anything about."

Scott would probably choose the latter. When questioned about his motives, he explained:

"It felt like a place I had no understanding of at all. What I had heard of the country from the media it sounded like a box with just Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, and Dennis Rodman in it. I guess I wanted to convince myself that it was another country where people lived and wasn't that different from anywhere else. From a computer networks perspective, it's interesting because it's one of a few places that has its own national internet that nobody knows anything about."

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So Scott simply applied to teach at the university and, thanks to his qualifications, was accepted. Absurdly, the elite university is run by Americans—just one of many peculiarities in the tense relationship both countries maintain.

Das Universitätsgebäude der Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. ​

The buildings of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. ​

Ein Stadtbus in Pjöngjang.

Next, Scott noticed how the students were able to combine even contradictory articles of faith with ease thanks to selective perception:

"Much of the West is okay, the hatred is very directed—it's specifically at the US and Japan. Canada, UK, Europe, those are all fine. They also know about the companies, and don't seem to harbor any particular grudge against Google, Microsoft, Apple, et cetera. They support Snowden."

Since many North Koreans think American citizens are blood-sucking monsters, Scott had the chance over his stay to animate this image with a bit more personality and humaneness. And reciprocally, his reports adjust our wooden view of everyday life in North Korea.

Scott's students were completely convinced that their country was at war with America

His students blared patriotic anthems in sync on the way to the cafeteria, yet they talked over one another when discussing soccer or homework during lunch. Although they thought it was insanely exciting to sit next to a foreigner, Scott's students were completely convinced that their country was currently at war with America. They would ask the American professors why they were still there when their countries were actively at war.

"I didn't have status," explains Scott regarding the cultural challenges of living in East Asia, "I was young and American." And the Koreans' reservations were deeply rooted, in spite of their curiosity: saying you were American was a good conversation ender. This was largely in the context of interacting with waitresses or other service people who would assume you were probably European."​

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Campus Life in Pyongyang

In general, Scott's experiences regarding contact with the opposite sex were very one-dimensional. He met practically no girls—not only because his class was entirely male, like everyone in the university's leading ranks, but also because it's illegal in North Korea to marry a foreigner. And, according to official state reason, homosexuality doesn't exist in the country.

Girls are 'too chatty' for the elite computer science course.

The university leadership thought up an anachronistic game plan for attracting more women to the campus: building a planned nursing school, which will soon open as part of the school of medicine. Aside from that, they justify their decision for a purely masculine student body in the computer science department with the following  asocial argument: the students who will become the country's elite class must refrain from talking at length about what they learned in college, and therefore the privilege should be reserved for boys who are "simply less chatty."​

Das Computerlabor der PUST. Die Studenten lernen aus Büchern, denn Internetzugang haben sie nicht.

The computer lab at PUST. The students learn from books because they don't have access to the internet. 

Lessons with a focus on Linux- and Android-based systems were a challenge for Scott. "A lot of computer science education breaks down without access to the internet," he quickly realized. The students—who also lived on campus—learned a lot from books. Some of them brought their own devices to class.

The 120 computers, split into two long rows in the lab, were networked with each other, yet they weren't connected to the internet there either. So the students obviously missed out on independently finding their own solutions online. Scott and the other professors were the only ones with internet access.

"A lot of computer science education breaks down without access to the internet."

In North Korea, access to the internet is controlled physically, not technically. If you get access, you have unfiltered access to the internet (you log in through a HTTP proxy, so it's evident which users are searching for what).

This means North Korea offers foreigners better—meaning less filtered—access to the internet than China, for example. Masters students aren't allowed to use the internet at all. Postgrad students were given limited access, though they had to use it in a special room, under surveillance.

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Incidentally, you can either access the internet or their intranet at educational institutions; places with access to both were frowned upon. For students who don't have access to the internet, the internet functions like an outdated archive at a public broadcasting station: You submit your inquiry and an employee looks up the answer for you, which you can pick up in a few days. So Scott's university, with access to the internet, still didn't have access to the North-Korea-wide intranet, which is offered in special e-libraries at other universities.

This countrywide intranet encompasses 3,000 to 5,000 sites and has a few of its own top level domains:

Ein Poster erklärt die Architektur des nordkoreaweiten Intranets mit eigenen TLDs.

A poster explains the architecture of North Korea's intranet with its own TLDs.

Verbal communication, not only digital communication, was subject to a level of social control too:

"Communications weren't monitored, but the students were supposed to self-report [or] report on each other if anyone was acting out of line," Scott said. So people just avoid controversial conversation topics to prevent themselves or others from getting into trouble.

Tablets with antennas and the Supreme Leader's speech app

Scott introduced two devices at the Chaos Computer Congress that he brought back from North Korea. The Arirang mobile phone, which he bought there for the equivalent of $600, runs on Android. Then there's the tablet, which admittedly lacks both WLAN and Bluetooth, but instead has a martial background featuring rocket warheads. It also comes with Angry Birds, pre-installed, as well as a practical, foldout antenna for television reception.

The tablet's special feature is a foldout antenna for watching TV.

Vorinstalliert auf dem nordkoreanischen Tablet: Die gesammelten Reden des Lieben Führers in digitaler Form—Band 39 bis 50.

Pre-installed on the North Korean tablet: the collective speeches of the supreme leader in digital form—volumes 39 to 50.

To get new apps for either device, customers have to go to a shop where someone manually transfers new programs onto them.

The cutting edge of the more or less elaborately-designed, localized apps is a practically indestructible archive containing all the writings by all of the supreme leaders, volume for volume, speech for speech. It also comes in an audio version, for falling asleep to. Immeasurable fun for those lonely nights.

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Using the cell service is unfortunately very expensive, almost unaffordable, for the residents of Pyongyang. Service provider Koryolink charges $90 for calling and another $140 for 3G with 50 MB per month.

Thanks to Scott, we can also make a cautious guess about the actual use of the technology. Koryolink claims to have a million customers. Since Scott saw phones in Pyongyang (population 4 million) pretty frequently, this figure could actually be realistic, he thinks.

"There's nationalism there, like everywhere."

It's difficult to say how far this closed technological ecosystem made up of local telephones and tablets extends beyond Pyongyang's city limits. Scott was rarely allowed to leave the city, and never without solicitous tour guides that never left his side once he'd ventured off campus. "People know about the rest of the world, but there is certainly not the feeling that life is worse in Pyongyang than in the rest of the world. There's nationalism there, like everywhere."

But are the people of North Korea happy? Scott tries to stay as distanced as possible from judgement and hence it's difficult to get a clear answer from him. On Instagram he answers this question with evasive diplomacy: "Of course you will find happy and unhappy people within any population.​"

Will Scott declined to be interviewed for this piece as he refuses inquiries that would associate him with media at the moment to ensure he still has the option to return to North Korea. This article was translated from​Motherboard Germany

All images (If not stated otherwise.) Will Scott via Instagram. License: CC BY 4.0.