North Korea: the Web as a pawn in the power game

Central Scientific and Technological Information Agency (CSTIA)

North Korea is one of the few countries where censorship can be judged by what is seen online, rather than what is missing. The country is not linked to the Internet proper and the authorities keep most of the population isolated from the rest of the world and even from the national intranet. The intranet was developed by the Central Scientific and Technological Information Agency (CSTIA) and is highly restricted and closely controlled by the domestic intelligence agencies.  Its goal is not to keep the population informed but merely to broadcast the official ideology and strengthen the technical skills of those who work for the fatherland. To enforce this wall of silence, special units such as Group 109 and Department 27 are dedicated to tracking down digital devices brought in from outside the country.

Watertight network

The CSTIA manages access to the World Wide Web. Until 2012, the wired telecommunications system was routed via the Chinese telecoms provider China Netcom and provided North Korea’s only link to the global network. In April, a partnership between North Korea and the Thai Internet service provider Loxley Pacific, known as Star Joint Venture, linked the network to the satellite communications provider Intelsat, offering an alternative in the event of problems with China Netcom. Despite the higher speeds offered by the new connection, the authorities’ policy of control severely restricts opportunities for browsing the Web for the few Internet users in North Korea.  The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) provides an example. In 2012, there was just one IP address available for the whole university. Additionally, a record of all previous connections to the outside world is kept on an HTTP server.

The Internet – necessity and threat

For North Korea, the Internet is almost exclusively a means of obtaining the technical information necessary for the country’s scientific development. The few researchers and engineers who have access to the network or are able to receive news and information from Koreans abroad are strictly supervised by the government, which ensures that no content that is contrary to the “Juche” ideology formulated by the country’s founder and “eternal president” Kim Il-sung falls into their hands.

The connection to the World Wide Web, which is enjoyed by some scientists and researchers, is routed via the ministry of posts and telecommunications, which thus has control over every user who is connected and makes sure only pages for purely scientific purposes are consulted. No cases of illicit browsing have been logged up to now, probably since the harshness of the North Korean regime is enough to deter scientists from visiting “counter-revolutionary” sites.

Computer room at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang (AP photo)

 All technical and scientific know-how, previously centralized in Pyongyang’s main library, the Grand People’s Study House, can now circulate freely to the rest of the country thanks to the establishment of a national intranet network dubbed Kwangmyong (“Bright Star”).

The network, which is not connected to the rest of the world, was implemented in 1997 by the CSTIA and allows authorized users to access all information made available by the authorities via a browser, a search engine, email and a discussion forum.

A search page on the Kwangmyong national intranet (Photo: Eric Lafforgue)

Everyone using the national intranet is monitored by the authorities. Although all pages on the intranet are pre-filtered so that the content causes no political problems, messages exchanged by users are monitored individually. Here, too, scientists are aware of the in-depth monitoring to which they are subjected and know that they would incur severe punishment if they indulged in political discussions or criticism of the government.

Officially, 2 million North Koreans have access to a computer but few are connected to the national intranet. Everyone who owns a computer must register with the authorities.  As a consequence, smuggled digital media such as CDs, DVDs and USB sticks have become an important source of news and information from outside the country within just a few years. People can read the content they contain using hi-fi or digital devices that they obtain by similar means, i.e. at vast expense on the black markets scattered throughout the country.

Although the government fears the contamination of its citizens by harmful foreign ideology, it has nonetheless speeded up the development of its telecommunications infrastructure. Last year, the mobile operator Koryolink, a joint venture launched in 2008 between the Egyptian firm Orascom Telecom and the Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC), began providing 3G mobile services for more than 2 million subscribers. This network also operates in isolation and international calls are not permitted. The service is available in all big towns and cities and along the main road and rail routes across the country.

In February last year, Jean Lee, Pyongyang bureau chief for the U.S. news agency Associated Press, was the first member of the foreign media in North Korea to post a wireless Tweet. This was made possible by the new 3G network developed by Koryolink and was symptomatic of greater openness on the part of the authorities, for reasons that are still unexplained.

This connection is available only to foreigners and at great expense: 150 euros to buy a SIM card, 10 euros for a monthly subscription and 150 euros for 2 gigabytes of data. It must also be registered with the government’s Korea Communications Center.

Group 109 – censorship’s elite force

Numerous departments, groups and units are dedicated to controlling information and cracking down on those who might try to seek information or to circulate censored content. Group 109 is an inter-agency surveillance unit created by Kim Jong-il in 2003. Believed to have been run by his successor Kim Jong-un before he came to power, it is one of the agencies responsible for tracking down content, equipment and digital media that have come from abroad.

According to testimony to a UN commission that was published last month, Group 109 regularly herds people into stadiums where they are made to observe those caught red-handed who are then sent to prison camps to deter others from obtaining illegal content. Agents of Department 27 also carry out unannounced inspections at private homes to try to identify anyone who has secretly acquired contraband electronic equipment, usually from China, in order to receive radio programmes broadcast by North Korean exiles or foreign stations transmitting on short wave, such as the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.

Propaganda as a tool of censorship

The dissemination of North Korean propaganda via the Internet is an increasing part of censorship online, aimed at presenting a positive view of North Korea in contrast to the alarming reports by human rights organizations and the international community.

The means of spreading such disinformation became increasingly sophisticated between 2012 and 2013. Despite the fact that most North Koreans are kept well away from the World Wide Web, more and more sites are springing up, and to date there are at least 11 websites using the .kp domain.

These are aimed at boosting the government’s propaganda internationally, being mainly directed at South Koreans and the North Korean community abroad. The information provided by these sites is mostly dedicated to the activities of leader Kim Jong-un, on whom it heaps praise, and the greatness of the country.

In January 2012, the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun launched a website in English, less than a year after it went online with a site in Korean. Most of its news is provided by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), but the website’s launch marked an effort to generate publicity. In an attempt to broaden its relations with its audience, the international radio station Voice of Korea, which broadcasts in nine languages, published a letter in September last year announcing it had a new email address and calling on listeners to send information to the station, either printed or on CD, on a variety of topics such as “urbanism” and technology.

Letter sent by the Voice of Korea radio to listeners (source: northkoreatech.org)

A dozen YouTube channels relay programmes broadcast by the main TV station KCTV and the news agency KCNA. The agency’s own site was brought updated in January last year, a few weeks before the Pyongyang Broadcasting Station, aimed at South Korea, China and Japan, launched its own website, called Great National Unity.

Among the new propaganda tools deployed in 2013 was a series of podcasts, uploaded to Apple’s iTunes media platform by the North Korea’s China-based website Uriminzokkiri.

Cyber war between the two Koreas

Since Internet access is strictly controlled and the national intranet purged of sensitive content, the real information war is ultimately being waged via the global network, i.e. outside the country. In March last year, the three main broadcasters in South Korea, MBC, KBS and YTN, were the targets of cyber attacks which shut down their servers.

This was believed to have been carried out in response to a previous attack on North Korea blamed on South Korea and the United States. Other attacks were recorded in the weeks that followed. By turns, Pyongyang and Seoul have been targeted by hackers working for their governments, and also by activist groups. The group Anonymous has carried out several attacks on North Korean websites, including that of the KCNA news agency.

More information on Internet and telecommunications in North Korea : www.northkoreatech.org