In the last days of December, North Korea again found itself in the limelight – even the US president during his final 2014 press conference delivered detailed remarks which specifically dealt with this tiny and impoverished East Asian country. The US government believes that North Korea was behind the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Presumably, it was revenge for producing “The Interview,” a comedy depicting a CIA-sponsored assassination of Kim Jong Un.
US President Barack Obama promised retaliation and, indeed, recently a new set of sanctions against prominent North Koreans was introduced. Additionally, in late December, North Korean Internet sites experienced unexplained troubles which, many suspect, were caused by the US-arranged attacks.
However, if the latter suspicions are correct, this is a rather inefficient way to exact revenge. Few if any country in the world remains as little dependent on the internet as North Korea, even though this country seems to have a cadre of efficient hackers.
Source of threat
For North Korean decision-makers, the internet is, above all, the source of threat. The regime’s survival to a large extent depends on its ability to keep the population isolated from the outside world, unaware of a huge and growing gap between North Korea and its neighbours. Needless to say, the internet is also watched carefully.
To start with, there is no regular Internet access in North Korea for anyone but a tiny elite group. Currently, there are less than 1100 IP addresses in the entire country – for comparison, Ethiopia has some 32,000. Only one cable, running between Pyongyang and Dandong, connects North Korea with the outside world.
To start with, there is no regular internet access in North Korea for anyone but a tiny elite group. Currently, there are less than 1,100 IP addresses in the entire country – for comparison, Ethiopia has some 32,000. Only one cable, running between Pyongyang and Dandong, connects North Korea with the outside world.
Who are those rare individuals who have access to the authentic internet? Some of them are members of the ruling family and other well-connected people at the pinnacle of power.
Intelligence services officials also can surf the World Wide Web with relative freedom. Internet-connected computers can be found in some research centres dealing with foreign technology and in foreign trade companies.
However, even in those agencies the vast majority of personnel has no unrestricted internet access. The internet-connected computers are installed in guarded secure rooms, so one should have proper clearance to be allowed in.
Even these privileged people usually cannot surf, but deal with their e-mail or visit some websites they need to check because of their duties or officially-approved research. Logs are checked, and in some cases a guard literally stands behind watching what is being done online.
At the same time, the North Korean elite understand that computers and IT is the way of the future, so for two decades they have done what they can in order to bring in the politically acceptable elements of computer technology, while keeping the dangers of ideological contamination at bay. So, they created their own answer to the internet; a nationwide intranet known as Kwangmyong.
Kwangmyong uses the same protocols as the “big” internet, but completely isolated from it. Since the entire system can easily be monitored, and no anonymity is possible, the authorities believed that Kwangmyong is not particularly dangerous politically.
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Since foreigners – with the exception of few trusted ones – are not normally allowed to use Kwangmyong, surprisingly little is known about the system.
It is believed to have some 5,000 sites and, perhaps, a few tens of thousands of individual and institutional subscribers. In some cases, the North Korean censors look for ideologically acceptable content on the internet and then upload it to the Kwangmyong.
One should not be surprised by these numbers. For such a poor country, North Korea has a remarkably large number of computers, largely brought in from China. A computer, used largely for movie watching, gaming and word processing, has long become a symbol of success for many affluent North Korean families.
There is little doubt that many of the North Korea’s best and brightest who study computer now will be recruited in the IT warfare units which in recent years have attacked a number of targets in South Korea (unlike its twin brother, the South is the world’s most wired society and, hence, is vulnerable to hacking).
However, North Korea itself is impervious to hacking; one cannot find another modern country where internet would be so marginal to social and economic life. If the outside forces succeed in cutting North Korea from the internet, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, a known admirer of American basketball, will indeed be annoyed since he will be unable to keep track of the latest NBA results. But otherwise, the impact of such an attack will be close to zero.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.