Features | Politics | Society

The Information Age:N. Korean Style

The “Hermit Kingdom” has slowly embraced cell phones and cyberspace – on its own terms. Those expecting that technology will lead to a “Pyongyang Spring” will be disappointed.

By Scott Thomas Bruce for

During the floods and famine of the 1990s, the North Korea regime was able to withstand the death of at least 5% of its population by forcing its poorest and least trusted citizens to bear the brunt of environmental disaster. Today, with one million cell phones in North Korea and a government sponsored intranet, the regime believes it can survive the advent of information technology by restricting its use to the most elite 5% of the population who have the largest stake in the survival of the regime as it currently exists.

North Korea intentionally restricts access to information to control its population.  TV and radios in North Korea are hardwired to only receive government controlled media. Foreign newspapers and periodicals are forbidden. North Koreans are not free to travel within the country without government permission. Foreigners who visit North Korea are carefully controlled by their (two) minders who keep them from interacting with the North Korean populace. In short, North Korea has traditionally viewed controlling the flow of information to its population as a fundamental necessity to ensure the survival of the state.

It is surprising then to see that the North Korea state has sanctioned the use of cell phones and other information technology. There are now more than 1 million third-generation cell phones in North Korea, as part of the Koryolink cell phone system. These phones can call other members of the Koryolink network, but cannot make calls outside of the country. There is also a state sponsored intranet in North Korea, called Kwangmyong. The intranet is restricted to elites in North Korea with good social standing. The intranet features message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media; its use has also been encouraged among university students, technical experts and scientists, and others to exchange information.

A few North Koreans have access to the unfiltered Internet. Andrei Lankov, a leading North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, estimated this number to be “a few dozen families” including Kim Jong-Un’s clan. Other select North Koreans may have restricted and/or monitored access to the Internet to gather data on the U.S. and South Korea, find content to populate the intranet, and maintain the North Korean government’s propaganda web sites.

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So why has the North Korea government, which has traditionally viewed control of information as part of its strategy for regime survival, allowed cell phones and the intranet within the country? North Korea hopes that access to some information technology tools will increase foreign investment in the country, and help build a more efficient economic system. Cell phones and the intranet will allow the state to control production and establish standards between Pyongyang and remote areas of the country.  North Korea also hopes that the limited use of cell phones will encourage investment from overseas, in particular China. The lack of cell phones has been noted as one of the biggest challenges for investors dealing with North Korea.

Socially, the North Korean state believes that it can allow access to these technologies while controlling the social instability that they might invite. Defectors who worked in the IT sector in North Korea have called this the “mosquito net” strategy, meaning it will allow foreign investment in the North while blocking potentially harmful news and culture from the outside world. In short, the North Korea state believes that it can reap the benefits of an information technology network, while controlling it to prevent censured foreign culture from influencing the North Korean population.

It also bears noting that, while cell phones and the domestic intranet could be used to undermine the state, they can also be used to support the state control apparatus. Koryolink users, for example, receive daily texts of North Korean propaganda on their phones. Intranet activity, particularly activity on discussion boards, is closely monitored by the North Korean state security department. Finally, the network can be shut down by the state, if necessary. As Alexandre Mansourov notes, the venture has been blessed by the highest levels of the state security mechanism, which would not happen unless the security apparatus of the regime believes it could control the impact of IT use.

Those expecting that cell phones will lead to a Pyongyang Spring will be disappointed. The songbun caste system in North Korea ensures that those with access to cell phones in North Korea are the most elite 5% of the population. North Koreans of low rank, or those living in the country side, will never see, let alone own, a Koryolink cell phone. They will similarly never access the intranet.

In the 1990s the floods and famine killed somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population of North Korea. The government was able to control this massive humanitarian disaster by triaging supplies of food and fuel to the elite of the country. Those that suffered and died were those with low rank in the state, whom the populace had already been told to view with suspicion. The state thus remained relatively stable, despite enduring a horrific environmental and humanitarian disaster. Today, the North Korean regime is controlling access to cell phones and the intranet in the same way, treating them as a luxury available only to the richest, and thereby– the regime hopes– the most loyal members of the state.

Although the state believes that it can control the advent of IT in North Korea, this does represent a fundamental shift in the role of the state. North Korea has given up on a system of total information control. In the past, the State Security Department was able to monitor all communications within the state. With at least a million cell phones in the country, the state will now have to choose which calls to monitor, probably focusing on foreigners and senior government and military officials. Furthermore, the ability to call remote areas of the country allows information to be disseminated in a way that was previously unthinkable. Finally, the North Korean state has blessed the use of information technology in order to acquire scientific information from abroad to support development in North Korea.  The ability to access foreign development data, even if it has been screened by the state, allows those with access to the intranet to become active information consumers.

So, while cell phones are not an immediate threat to the stability of the North Korean state, they represent a very new development. Combined with the rise of markets in the North, and a younger generation moving into the ranks of government, mobile phones and an increasingly information savvy population have the potential to fundamentally alter the state and, if North Korea can be persuaded to reform its economy, create a strong incentive to integrate the North into the dynamic economies of Northeast Asia.

Scott Thomas Bruce is the Project Manager on nuclear nonproliferation issues at CRDF Global and an Associate at the Nautilus Institute and the East-West Center. He is the author, most recently, of A Double-Edged Sword: Cell-Phones and Information Technology in North Korea (East-West Center, 2012), from which this article is adapted.