TransTeleCom, a Russian telecommunications firm, has extended a new Internet connection to North Korea. According to North Korea analyst Martyn Williams, the new link from Russia will give North Korea a layer of redundancy to the country’s existing Internet link from China. Williams writes:
The connection, from TransTeleCom, began appearing in Internet routing databases at 09:08 UTC on Sunday, or around 17:38 Pyongyang time on Sunday evening. Internet routing databases map the thousands of connections between telecom providers and enable computers to figure out the best route to a destination.
The logic behind the additional link, which TransTeleCom has confirmed, to the broader Internet isn’t surprising for North Korea. Instead of relying on a single connection through China, a more robust second option allows for increased confidence that its infrastructure will withstand not only regular service hiccups, but attempts at kinetic and non-kinetic disruption by the United States and other adversaries.
Indeed, Williams’ report comes days after the Washington Post revealed that a rare, albeit rudimentary, U.S. offensive cyber operation took place against North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau from September 22 to September 30. That attack targeted the networks used by North Korea’s military espionage arm, but presumably a more advanced U.S. attack could disable North Korea’s ability to access the wider Internet.
With land borders to just two countries with which it maintains normalized diplomatic relations — China and Russia — North Korea’s options are fairly limited in how it can hedge its bets. The addition of a Russian link is likely also not new altogether. Instead, the new TransTeleCom link appears to considerably increase the bandwidth available to North Korean networks
Founded in 1997, TransTeleCom is a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia’s state railway operator, Russian Railways. According to a statement the firm released after Williams’ report, it “has historically had a connection to the communication network of North Korea under the agreement with Korea Posts and Telecommunications Corp, which was signed in 2009.”
It’s unclear for now when North Korea negotiated the agreement for the expanded bandwidth access or at what level Russian political leadership may have intervened in the agreement.
Internet use in North Korea is far from widespread and strictly censored for most users to an in-country intranet (known as the Kwangmyong), with access to the open world wide web restricted to certain state actors (included its own hackers), foreign officials, and some researchers.