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Dan Swinhoe (Asia) - Use Linux My Comrade: Tech In North Korea

[Disclaimer: No students were hurt or misled in the writing of this piece.]

"North Korea's path to IT modernization began in the 1990s but was cemented in the early 2000s when Kim Jong Il declared people who couldn't use computers to be one of the three fools of the 21st century. (The others, he said, are smokers and those ignorant of music.)"

So since the supreme benevolent ruler's declaration, has the DPRK become a haven for modern day tech? Well, no. Progress has been made, but it's come at a slow pace. The first 3G service became available in 2008, and at the start of the year mobile internet was being offered to foreigners, along with the ability for them to use their own phones (but an DPRK-specific SIM card) to connect. Sadly this lasted all of a month before being revoked, strangely coinciding with basketballer Dennis Rodman's short tenure in the country.

All that has kind of been forgotten in the Nuclear furore that's been on-going for the last few weeks. But now that's seemingly died down, it might be a good time to ask; "So what is tech life in North Korea really like?"

Use Linux My Comrade
Guestimates put Koryolink, the nation's sole mobile phone operator, as having 1 million subscribers* (from a possible 24 million) with Kim Jong Un preferring HTC- though the illegal market could be much bigger. Mobile phones might be a relatively common sight, but not so much for the web. The internet is banned for the populace with a few exceptions for the most powerful- although impossible to be sure, there could be less than 1,000 people online from within the DPRK's borders.

There are barely a handful of cybercafes in Pyongyang, all of which are prohibitively expensive for the majority of people, and one report estimates around 16% of people can access computers. Those that can get to a computer will be greeted not with the Windows logo but with Red Star, a custom Linux-based OS that "correlates with the country's values". One of it's many attractive features is a funky piece of code that makes the names of Kim Jong-un and former leaders automatically appear slightly bigger on North Korean sites, just in case you had forgotten who they were.

As there's no web, people can instead access Kwangmyong, the country's closed-off intranet, featuring news portals and email and of course, closely monitored. No Chrome or even Internet Explorer here; Red Star comes with Naenara ("My country" in Korean), a Firefox-based browser. Other quirks include a calendar that reads 101 - the number of years since the birth of Kim Il Sung, while custom software includes My Comrade (notebook), Pyongyang Fortress (firewall), Woodpecker (antivirus), We (an office productivity software suite) and Pigeon (email).

More people are beginning to access illegal media, through DVDs, foreign media outlets and passing on memory sticks- passed across borders by balloon (also known as a Sneakernet), but free information is still largely absent.

The Usual Suspects: Porn, Instagram and Hacking
Of the people lucky enough to get access to the real web, TorrentFreak, making use of the small amount of Bit Torrent information available, found some interesting information about their downloading habits. Amongst the list of Torrented files were ‘Net Monitor for Employees Professional', episodes of ‘How I Met Your Mother', Mac OSX Mountain Lion, the obligatory porn, and ‘The Complete Home Decorating Idea Book'. No ‘Nuclear Missiles for Dummies' then.

Often from within the country, the AP's Jean H. Lee provides some on the ground insights that many can't get from looking at all the stats- pictures of people ice-skating and texting and businessmen making phonecalls. Sadly, after the shutting down of web access for foreigners, Instagrams from inside the country are likely to go back to being rarities.

As well as Instagram, North Korea has been growing its presence on other social media sites. Twitter accounts and an official Sub-Reddit exist, as well as YouTube accounts. On a less PR-friendly move, North Korea is almost rumoured to be growing its cyberwar efforts. Recent attacks on the democratic South were blamed on Pyongyang, and the number of state-backed hackers could number up to 3,000. Despite the often backward image that people have, evidence points to a people who can be quite handy with computers when they want to be.

DPRK- BPO?
On the less malicious, more business-orientated side of things, North Korea's IT sector is steadily growing. According to GPI Consultancy, there are 10,000 IT professionals working in the field, and it's home to a growing outsourcing industry. Though obviously a minnow compared to India or China, there is still a cheap to employ, well-educated workforce experienced in IT security, web and application design, and animation. Obviously the blocking off access to the wider world can make finding a business to work with difficult, and the general stigma of the country can be off-putting. GPI insists where North Korean outsourcing is now is where Indian outsourcing was not too long ago, and just needs a few major companies to make the plunge.

The Schmidt Effect
The future of tech in North Korea has come under the spotlight in recent months after Google's Eric Schmidt made a high profile visit to the hermit nation. He said the country's existing infrastructure would be easy to open up to the rest of the world, explaining that their continued isolation would "affect their physical world and their economic growth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically". Time will tell if his visit had any lasting effect, but he does have a valid point.

While leaders may be scared about the loss of control the web could introduce, since the people clandestinely access increasing amounts of media anyways, and research suggests a Pyongyang Spring is unlikely in the short term, it makes sense for the government to actually open up. Aside from helping its own outsourcing efforts, the internet could help improve the lives of the people suffering hardships every day.

China may be a good example of a strict nation allowing its people onto the web, and could easily help the DPRK put in any restrictions it felt necessary to protect itself. Yes, a North Korean version of the Great Firewall doesn't really gel with the notion of a free internet, but you'd be a fool for choosing a Red Star intranet over a censored version of the genuine article, right?

[*Edit: News released today suggests 3G subscriptions have now hit 2 million, doublling in the last 12 months.]

By Dan Swinhoe, Editorial Assistant, IDG Connect

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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