Mon, Nov 13, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Only if it serves the state: North Korea’s online experience

Kim Jong-un is offering his people a closely monitored and walled-off online and smartphone experience, with users echoing the official condemnation that the Internet has been poisoned by the US imperialists and their stooges — although the elite do seem to have unrestrained Internet access

By Eric Talmadge  /  AP, PYONGYANG

Illustration: Yusha

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 smartphones. 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 is 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 e-mail address that is not shared, and the price for trying to get around the government’s rules can be severe.

However, 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 cyberattacks 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 surveiled 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, 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 is 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 is 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 US 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 is on Pak’s screen is for North Korean eyes only. The IP address, 10.76.1.11, indicates he is on the walled-off network North Koreans call Kwangmyong, which means “brightness” or “light.”

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