The most surprising aspect of news that North Korea’s internet access was brought to its knees was, for many, that the notoriously isolated country had any to lose in the first place. Here is everything you need to know about the internet in North Korea
Most people don’t have the internet, they have ‘Kwangmyong’
This intranet – a small, internal network like you may use at work – was opened in 2000 and includes a search engine, email, news coverage and a browser.
It’s free to use and open to anyone who can get access to a computer. However, few people can: you need government permission to own a computer, and they cost as much as three months average salary.
There are around 1,000 to 5,500 websites on the service, according to reports in the Toronto Star, and external websites are occasionally made available on request – albeit after being downloaded, censored and hosted locally.
Few can access the internet as we know it
The only people to have true internet access are political leaders and their families, students at elite universities and members of the country’s cyber warfare units. This is thought to amount to just a few thousand people. However, just as in the West, it is likely that the government monitors this access and keeps records.
North Korean leaders are ‘internet experts’
Former leader of North Korea Kim Jong Il told South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that he was an “ internet expert ” at a summit talk. He added that it was “alright” for the special “industrial zone” near South Korea to be connected to the internet, but that there would be “many problems” if the nation’s citizens had access.
Current leader Kim Jong-un has been said to be a fan of the internet and appears to be a fan of Apple computers, having been pictured last year working at a desk on which an iMac was perched (see above). As Apple complies with trade embargoes that forbid the sale of products to the country, the possible source of the computer became quite the talking point.
Computers in North Korea look like Apple Macs – but aren’t
As mentioned, Apple has its fans in North Korea. But the country has its own operating system called Red Star OS, developed internally, that all computers must use. In recent years it has been given an “Apple makeover” .
Red Star was written by the Korea Computer Center, the country’s technology research hub, which has a staff of around 1,000 and offices in Germany, Syria, China and the United Arab Emirates. It manages the official web portal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Naenara, as well as a state-approved search engine.
The development of an independent operating system speaks to North Korea’s political thesis of Juche, which praises independence and self-reliance, although Red Star is actually based on Linux which was developed by volunteers around the world.
There’s only one way in and out
The UK has dozens of high-speed cables linking us directly to countries all over the world, but North Korea has just one. If one of our links to the internet fails we have other ways to maintain service. Not so in North Korea. This is both a weakness and an intentional design: it’s easier to control access when there’s only one way in or out.
The only ISP in North Korea is the state-run Star Joint Venture Co. that uses a fiber-optic cable that runs between Pyongyang and Dandong in China. There is also a satellite link to Germany that is occasionally used to bolster the connection.
Wi-Fi isn’t popular with the state
News from on high recently came that Wi-Fi would be banned at foreign embassies in North Korea . The problem, reportedly, was that some unprotected networks were accidentally broadcasting uncensored internet connections to nearby buildings.
There are reports that buildings near embassies had become increasingly popular places to live for exactly this reason.
A letter to embassies said: “Therefore, it is kindly notified that the regional wireless network is abolished here. It would be appreciated if the missions could positively cooperate in the current measures taken for the security of the DPRK.”
Quite what the unnamed embassies were trying to do by broadcasting strong, unconnected Wi-Fi to relatively uncensored internet is anyone’s guess…
It has its own top-level domain
Just as we have .co.uk, North Korea has the .kp domain. It was created on September 24 2007 and registrations are handled by Star Joint Venture.
Mobile phones are one way to get illegal access
North Korea has a well established, if small, mobile network. The country currently has around 1.7m mobile phones in use. Westerners in the country can use 3G to access the internet but citizens are restricted from doing so. There are reports, however, that those near the Chinese border sometimes illegally connect to Chinese networks to get online. Internet access is highly censored in China, of course.
There isn’t much space on the North Korean internet
Much is made of the fact that North Korea has just 1,024 IP addresses while countries like the UK have over 123m. Each machine connected to the internet must have an IP address and there are a limited number available globally (although multiple machines can reside on one address, behind a piece of hardware such as a router).
This is largely due to demand. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) assigns addresses based on need: if North Korea suddenly blossomed into a democratic and internet-obsessed nation then it would be given more.
And it isn’t alone in its paltry allocation. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, has only 21,248 IP addresses for its 74m people – just 0.29 addresses per 1,000 citizens. Ethiopia has just 32,768 addresses for 94m people.
New developements in the way that IP addresses are handled will soon make it far less important to limit allocations as there will no longer be a shortage.
North Korea has dabbled in internet start-ups
An online gambling website was set up in collaboration between the North Korean government and a South Korean company in 2002, but has since been closed down. In 2007 the government launched an online shop called Chollima selling everything from cars to health foods in collaboration with a Chinese company. That, too, has been shut down.