North Korea: On the net in world's most secretive nation

A man uses a computer in Pyongyang, North Korea Only select members of society, known as "elites" get to use North Korean internet

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What is it like to surf the Internet in the most secretive country on Earth? The short answer is - strange, at least by the rest of the world's standards. But as North Koreans begin to put their lives at risk just to connect to the outside world, it could mark a dramatic moment in the country's history.

There's a curious quirk on every official North Korean website. A piece of programming that must be included in each page's code.

Its function is straightforward but important. Whenever leader Kim Jong-un is mentioned, his name is automatically displayed ever so slightly bigger than the text around it. Not by much, but just enough to make it stand out.

It's just one facet of the "internet" in North Korea, a uniquely fascinating place.

Enlarged Kim Jong Un in text The names of Kim Jong-un and former leaders are slightly bigger on North Korean sites

In a country where citizens are intentionally starved of any information other than government propaganda, the internet too is dictated by the needs of the state - but there is an increasing belief that this control is beginning to wane.

"The government can no longer monitor all communications in the country, which it could do before," explains Scott Thomas Bruce, an expert on North Korea who has written extensively about the country.

"That is a very significant development."

Year 101

There's just one cybercafe in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang.

Anyone logging on at the cafe would find themselves at a computer that isn't running Windows, but instead Red Star - North Korea's own custom-built operating system, reportedly commissioned by the late Kim Jong-il himself.

A pre-installed readme file explains how important it is that the operating system correlates with the country's values.

Red Star OS on a computer in North Korea Computers in North Korea run Red Star, a customised operating system

The computer's calendar does not read 2012, but 101 - the number of years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country's former leader whose political theories define policy decisions.

Normal citizens do not get access to the "internet". That privilege is left to a select number in the country, known as elites, as well as some academics and scientists.

What they see is an internet that is so narrow and lacking in depth it resembles more an extravagant company intranet than the expansive global network those outside the country know it to be.

USB balloons


According to Daily NK's Chris Green, one of the many innovative ways being used to get information into North Korea involves attaching USB memory sticks to balloons, and floating them across the border.

These sticks often contain South Korean programming - such as soap operas - and also the Korean language version of Wikipedia.

It means that while most North Koreans do not have access to the internet, they can still use these USB sticks to get information about the world beyond their border.

DailyNK is a website based in South Korea which publishes first-hand accounts of North Koreans both inside and outside the country.

"Time and time again we hear stories of which James Bond would be proud," said Mr Green in a recent presentation.

"Cellphones hidden in plastic bags and buried on hillsides far outside towns and cities, only being retrieved in order to make a single call, a call that must not last more than two minutes if the source is to avoid detection by the army of mobile electro-magnetic radiation detectors deployed by the Ministry of State Security."

"The system they've set up is one that they can control and tear down if necessary," explains Mr Bruce.

The system is called Kwangmyong, and is administered by the country's lone, state-run internet service provider.

According to Mr Bruce, it consists mainly of "message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media". Unsurprisingly, there's no sign of Twitter.

"For a lot of authoritarian governments who are looking at what is happening in the Middle East," says Mr Bruce, "they're saying rather than let in Facebook, and rather than let in Twitter, what if the government created a Facebook that we could monitor and control?"

The Red Star operating system runs an adapted version of the Firefox browser, named Naenara, a title it shares with the country's online portal, which also has an English version.

Typical sites include news services - such as the Voice of Korea - and the official organ of the state, the Rodong Sinmun.

But anyone producing content for this "internet" must be careful.

Reporters Without Borders - an organisation which monitors global press freedom - said some North Korean "journalists" had found themselves sent to "revolutionisation" camps, simply for a typo in their articles.

Beyond the Kwangmyong intranet, some North Koreans do have full, unfiltered internet access.

However, it is believed this is restricted to just a few dozen families - most directly related to Kim Jong-un himself.

'Mosquito net'

North Korea's reluctance to connect citizens to the web is counteracted by an acceptance that, as with trade, it needs to open itself up slightly if it is to continue to survive.

While China has its infamous "great firewall" - which blocks out the likes of Twitter and, from time to time the BBC website - North Korea's technology infrastructure is described as a "mosquito net", allowing only the bare essentials both in and out.

And it's with mobile that the mosquito net is most porous.

North Korean students work on their computers at Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang Sanctioned North Korean websites typically contain news - and are also available in English

While there is an official mobile network, which does not offer data connections or international calls, North Koreans are increasingly getting hold of Chinese mobile phones, smuggled across the border.

The handsets generally work within about 10km (6 miles) of the border between the two countries - but not without considerable danger.

"The level of risk that people are taking now would be unthinkable 20 years ago," says Nat Kretchun, co-author of a groundbreaking report into the changing media environment in North Korea.

The paper, entitled A Quiet Opening, interviewed 420 adults who had defected from the country. Among their stories was a glimpse at the lengths people would go to use these illegal mobile phones.

"In order to make sure the mobile phone frequencies are not being tracked, I would fill up a washbasin with water and put the lid of a rice cooker over my head while I made a phone call," said one interviewee, a 28-year-old man who left the country in November 2010.

Advert for Koryolink North Korea's mobile service offers 3G connection speeds - but no internet

"I don't know if it worked or not, but I was never caught."

While the man's scientific methodology is questionable, his fear was certainly warranted.

"Possession of illegal cellphones is a very major crime," explains Mr Bruce.

NK jargon buster


This is North Korea's intranet, a closed system that those lucky enough to have access to can browse. Among the content are news websites, messageboards and other chat functions. Only the "elites" - members of high social standing - are permitted to use it, as well as some scientists and academics.


Koryolink is the official North Korean mobile network. Administered by Egyptian firm Orascom, it boasts over one million subscribers. However, it is not possible to make international calls on the service, nor can users access mobile internet.


Meaning My Country, Naenara is the name given to the main information portal on the North Korean intranet, as well as the specially designed version of the Mozilla Firefox browser.

Red Star OS

The Red Star operating system, used by computers in North Korea, is built on Linux, the popular open source software used by many in the wider world. Its introduction music is believed to be based on a classic Korean folk song, Arirang.

"The government has actually bought sensor equipment to try and track down people who are using them.

"If you use them, you want to use them in a highly populated area, and you want to be using them for a short amount of time."

Honest information

During his leadership, Kim Jong-il would parade hundreds of tanks through the streets to show himself as a "military genius".

Many observers say that his son, Kim Jong-un, must in contrast show himself to have an astute technological mind, bringing hi-tech enhancements to the lives of his citizens.

But each step on this path brings the people of North Korea something they've not had before - honest information, which can have a devastating effect on secretive nations.

"I don't see an open door towards an Arab Spring coming that way any time soon," Mr Bruce says.

"But I do think that people are now expecting to have access to this technology - and that creates an environment of personal expectation that cannot be easily rolled back."

With thanks to Flickr user comradeanatollii for the image of Red Star OS.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    North Korea won't change before China does. Despite its commendable advancements in the past ten years China remains a centrally controlled communist dictatorship and I don't believe it would tolerate a united and democratic Korea on its doorstep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    obviously internet is vulnerable despite of all security measures taken but its a place you speak your words good or bad no matter, but its not as such going way like condemning someone or demeaning something. its a strong influence over followers of social media if you will try to do it they will flush you out, but things are not always perceived as it seen and something stereotyped influence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    It must be great to go on-line to buy some more green fatigues, matching green cap had plus enamel red star badge combo.

    Very alla mode in North Korea .

    You know what they say in South Korea, 'Eeee it's grim up North Korea!'

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    #35 suresys "your joking right, Hitler...central?"

    Nope, I'm completely serious. Despite the left and right's attempts to pin Hitler onto each other, in the terms of their economic policies the Nazis were actually fairly close the political centre. It was their social and foreign policies that were absolutely bonkers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Hopefully one day all Humans will have the same amount of personal freedom we are priviledged to have in the archetypal Western world. We've certainly been getting there as a species over the past few centuries, just need to keep driving on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Kim Jong Il what a lunatic, I hope N. Korea will allow their people to use PC's it must be terrible living in such an enclosed state...........get rid of your boy leader then everyone can have a PC

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    The internet will not cause North Korea to open up or collapse it's still a hermit kingdom the personal fief of the ludicrously insane Kim Jong-il family. Behind the official veneer is a police state as brutal as the Khmer-rouge was in Cambodia. North Korea will either rot into nothingness over decades or the suffering of the masses will finally be too much and a bloody paroxysm will destroy it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    wonder what the on line shopping is like

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @49. JeanLouis

    Any peer reviewed academic journal would be a good start...

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Freedom is just a mirage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Nice to not see the usual knee-jerk comments after a NK article.
    Its a shame that the vast majority of what we read about NK is false
    Having been there,met and made friends with North Koreans, I can report they are some of the friendliest people I have met.
    The issue of freedom however is a problem and I hope for the sake of my friends that the leaders take the positive steps they need to take!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @46: Chief Salmond: what I mean is that despite all our flaws in the UK, it cannot be compared to the NK. Criticize the UK as much as you wish, but we all can enjoy a safe lunch with our relatives, while in NK you could end up with your family in a camp for making such post.
    Wikipedia takes source from Amnesty... not perfect, but do you have anything more reliable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    We're not as free as you think. Every single thing on our supposedly free and unrestricted internet is monitored by someone somewhere.

    And don't be deluded by the illusion of 'free speech' either. Try saying whatever you want. You will offend some idiot somewhere and get arrested. It's becoming a regular occurence on sites like Twitter.

    90% of the internet is pornography anyway so who cares!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Since Internet has been found a source of vast knowledge, easy access to it (Internet surfing etc.) for all irrespective of differences is understood very beneficial and essential as well.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @38. JeanLouis

    I know fine well what happens in NK - you don't need to try to shock anybody. I'm just saying that Wikipedia is written by anybody who wants to write there, therefore using it as a reference is not advisable.

    I don't really know what you mean about lunch with my family, its Monday afternoon - who has family lunches then, everybody's at work!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Our leaders certainly love reminding us to feel grateful that we in the UK can use Twitter, watch the X Factor and eat at McDonalds... I'm sure it's a great comfort to the million young people unemployed as we slide towards a triple-dip recession.

    All things considered, freedom of speech may not be the 21st Century's greatest concern.

  • Comment number 44.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Well, I have to say China is much more better than NK,At least we can get any information we want with VPN. we can surf online anytime. I can't say our gov is perfect, but it actually keeps the country under control and make it develop fast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Its probably a lot like surfing the net in the UK. If you post something the state media don't like, they'll delete your comment and if you say something the regime really doesn't like, they'll send a policeman to your house.

    The hypocrisy at a time when our freedoms of speech and privacy have never been so restricted is astounding.

    We need to get our/your house in order first BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    oh noes, don't say anything bad about NK or they will come and take you away.

    All Hail Kim Jong Un

    o/ o/ o/


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