north-korea
Technology Outsourcing

North Korea: Will Tech Open this Sealed Box?

Born and raised in the English commuter town of Sunningdale that lies 24 miles west of London in England, Martyn Williams is perhaps an unlikely candidate to be an expert on technology in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — or North Korea as it is better known — but that’s exactly what he is. His North Korea Tech website is the premier source of information for that specialist topic. I spoke to him by phone to discuss the ways this secretive, highly militarised and often backward country that borders Russia, China and (via a demilitarised zone) South Korea, is getting to grips with the digital world.

First, I asked him how he had developed this rather niche interest.

“It all began growing up in England,” he recalls. “I listened in on shortwave radio and it always fascinated me how different their view of the world was —even more extreme than any of the Soviet countries. Later, from the 1990s, I lived in Tokyo and was working as a technology news writer for the IDG News Service [part of the IDG group that owns IDG Connect]. I had always followed the North Korea news and Japan is far more interested in the North Korean news [than the West] because it’s a neighbouring country. In 2002 I got the chance to go there as South Korea was co-hosting the football World Cup with Japan, and North Korea wanted to get in on that and get some attention from the media.

“I did a couple of stories for the News Service on North Korea and I kept watching it. I had built up all this information and the News Service didn’t want a North Korea story every day so I started putting stories on North Korea Tech as well as linking to News Service stories.”

Is North Korea really as odd and controlled a state as the Western media would have it?

“A lot of the image that the country has in the West is completely deserved and true. They do have shortages of food, a shortage of energy, people get trotted off to prison camps never to be seen again... But what you see more now with the rise of blogs and so on is that the weirder and wackier, more far-out stuff takes on a life of its own… it’s not true but it becomes accepted as fact. Last year it was reported that a former girlfriend of President Kim II-sung had been executed on the grounds she had performed in a pornographic video, but then she appeared on TV. But [the story had been] taken as fact by a lot of sources.”

Another story, that the President had had his uncle executed, was very likely true but the reported addition that “120 ravening dogs had torn [him] apart” was a fiction.

I ask whether he had developed an odd affection for the country despite its woes.

“A ‘deep interest’ is probably the right way of saying it. ‘Affection’ is probably the wrong word. I’m interested in what goes on there and I feel a lot for the people who live there and the lives they lead.”

And what of the technology scene there?

“Technology there is still… well, frankly there isn’t a lot. On the hardware side there’s almost nothing going on in terms of making computers, cellphones and tablets. What we have seen is a rise in number of cellphones being used: a cellphone network was built by a company from Thailand but didn’t do well and the second network is an Egyptian-developed one. Almost two million people, which is nearly 10% of the 24 million population, have a cellphone but it’s peculiar because the phones are prohibited from making international calls or accessing the internet. The information wall that surrounds the country means it’s very difficult to get news from overseas, much more so even than in China.”

However, as has happened in countries such as Israel and Russia, the military and security agencies might spearhead technology development and North Korea is active in fields such as voice recognition and transcription programs.

“Where they are starting to be interesting is on the software side,” Williams say. “It doesn’t go worldwide but we see it in the domestic press coverage of things they’re doing at universities.”

A trickle of computers and other IT equipment also traverses the Chinese border, Williams says, but usage is severely controlled.

“There are computers in the highest levels of government and some students and academics would be able to use them but there’s very strong security… sometimes literally someone sitting next door watching.”

That limits the chances of technology being used for insurrection.

“The penalties [for any questionable use of IT] would be quite severe but one of the most powerful tools beyond technology is fear. You do see mumblings among the population but it would be very surprising if there were ever any demonstrations. One in 10 or 20 of the population is working for the security services or at least informing them. A lot of people realise the government is screwing them over but they lack the ability to do anything. At least in Tiananmen Square [scene of student-led Chinese protests in 1989] there were foreign media.”

Won’t foreigners eventually lead to a greater flow of information eventually?

Williams thinks not, despite the fact that some level of international business is conducted in the country and there are embassies in the North Korea capital, Pyongyang. But what might be more interesting is the future of PUST, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, started by a South Korean-born man with a US passport, James Kim, who was once arrested in North Korea but who went back and built this college.

It may be that PUST and North Korea’s desire to become a technology power open up more communication channels with the outside world.

“I do think the population is slowly becoming better informed and the government is losing control —but the control they have is still substantial,” Williams says.

“If you get a bunch of North Korea watchers together, people are always guessing about the future. Cellphones, even if they’re just domestic, aid information flow. Shortwave radios are getting smaller and easier to smuggle in. North Korea definitely needs foreign currency and there have been attempts to turn North Korea into an outsourcing hub…. sending a project to Vietnam or China is one thing but that usually doesn’t fly. I did talk to a foreigner with internet access and he said Oracle detects the IP address and won’t let them into Java. I do see North Korean IP addresses visiting the site, a few hits a month.”

Technology, he concludes, might help break the hermetic seal that cuts off North Koreans from the rest of the world, but for the foreseeable future, the country remains as disconnected as ever.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

PREVIOUS ARTICLE

« Virtual Reality Addresses UK Kids' Autism and Phobias

NEXT ARTICLE

Francisco J. Vico and the First Computer-Musicians »
author_image
Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

  • twt
  • twt
  • Mail

Poll

Do you think your smartphone is making you a workaholic?