Ever so cautiously, North Korea is going online.
Doctors can consult via live, online video conferencing, and lectures at prestigious Kim II Sung University are streamed to faraway factories and agricultural communes. People use online dictionaries and text each other on their smartphones. In the wallets of the privileged are “Jonsong” or “Narae” cards for e-shopping and online banking. Cash registers at major department stores are plugged into the web.
It’s just not the World Wide Web. This is all done on a tightly sealed intranet of the sort a medium-sized company might use for its employees.
The free flow of information is anathema to authoritarian regimes, and with the possible exception of the African dictatorship of Eritrea, North Korea is still the least Internet-friendly country on Earth. Access to the global Internet for most is unimaginable. Hardly anyone has a personal computer or an email address that isn’t shared, and the price for trying to get around the government’s rules can be severe.
But for Kim Jong Un, the country’s first leader to come of age with the Internet, the idea of a more wired North Korea is also attractive. It comes with the potential for great benefits to the nation from information technology — and for new forms of social and political control that promise to be more effective than anything his father and grandfather could have dreamed of. It also allows for the possibility of cyber-attacks on the West.
Pyongyang’s solution is a two-tiered system where the trusted elite can surf the Internet with relative freedom while the masses are kept inside the national intranet, painstakingly sealed off from the outside world, meticulously surveilled and built in no small part on pilfered software.
The regime created, in other words, an online version of North Korea itself.