Walls sur­round N. Korea’s web users

Na­tion’s in­tranet, com­put­ers, phones tightly con­trolled

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - NATION & WORLD - By Eric Tal­madge As­so­ci­ated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Ever so cau­tiously, North Korea is go­ing on­line.

Doc­tors can con­sult via live video con­fer­enc­ing. Peo­ple text each other on their smart­phones. In the wal­lets of the priv­i­leged are cards for e-shop­ping and on­line bank­ing. And this is all done on a tightly sealed in­tranet of the sort a medium-sized com­pany might use for its em­ploy­ees.

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Eritrea, North Korea is still the least in­ter­net-friendly coun­try on Earth. Ac­cess to the global in­ter­net for most is unimag­in­able, and hardly any­one has a per­sonal com­puter or an email ad­dress that isn’t shared.

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 also comes with the po­ten­tial for great ben­e­fits — and for new forms of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­trol. 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 sprawl­ing, glassy SciTech Com­plex houses North Korea’s big­gest eli­brary, with more than 3,000 ter­mi­nals. Pak Sung Jin, a post­grad­u­ate in chem­istry, came to work on an es­say.

Un­like most North Kore­ans, Pak has some ex­pe­ri­ence with the in­ter­net, though on a su­per­vised, need-only ba­sis. If Pak needs any­thing from the in­ter­net, ac­cred­ited univer­sity of­fi­cials will find it for him.

Today, he is re­ly­ing on the in­ter­net’s North Korean al­ter ego, the na­tional in­tranet, a unique way to ex­ert con­trol through not just block­ing but com­plete sep­a­ra­tion.

Pak is on the walled-off net­work North Kore­ans call “Kwangmy­ong,” which means bright­ness or light. Us­ing the “Nae­nara” browser — the name means “my coun­try” but it’s a mod­i­fied ver­sion of Fire­fox — Pak vis­its a res­tau­rant page, his univer­sity web­site, and cook­ing and on­line shop­ping sites.

There are about 168 sites on Kwangmy­ong, an of­fi­cial said, spread across sep­a­rate net­works for gov­ern­ment agen­cies, schools and li­braries, and com­pa­nies.

Like most North Korean com­put­ers, the desk­tops at the Sci-Tech Com­plex run on the “Red Star” op­er­at­ing sys­tem, which was de­vel­oped from Linux open­source cod­ing. Leaked ver­sions of Red Star also re­veal some rather sin­is­ter, and for most users in­vis­i­ble, fea­tures.

Any at­tempt to change its core func­tions or dis­able virus check­ers re­sults in an au­to­matic re­boot cy­cle. Files down­loaded from USBs are wa­ter­marked so that au­thor­i­ties can iden­tify and trace crim­i­nal or sub­ver­sive ac­tiv­ity. And a trace viewer takes reg­u­lar screen­shots of what is be­ing dis­played.

North Korea’s na­tional in­tranet con­cept is unique and ex­treme even when com­pared with other in­for­ma­tion-wary coun­tries.

China and Cuba, for ex­am­ple, are well known for the ex­tent of con­trol the gov­ern­ment ex­erts over what cit­i­zens can see. But that is done pri­mar­ily through cen­sor­ship and block­ing, not com­plete sep­a­ra­tion.

Nat Kretchun, deputy di­rec­tor of the Open Tech­nol­ogy Fund, said the kinds of cen­sor­ship and sur­veil­lance soft­ware in North Korea re­veal a new in­for­ma­tion con­trol strat­egy. Be­fore, in­for­ma­tion was pri­mar­ily con­trolled through a re­source-in­ten­sive hu­man net­work. But the ad­vent of the in­ter­net poked holes in that strat­egy, so North Korean of­fi­cials learned to adapt by us­ing the on­line de­vices them­selves as yet an­other tool for sur­veil­lance.

“In North Korea cell­phones and in­tranet-en­abled de­vices are on bal­ance pro-sur­veil­lance and con­trol,” said Kretchun, who has been study­ing North Korea’s re­la­tion­ship to the in­ter­net for years.

The most com­mon on­line ex­pe­ri­ence for North Kore­ans isn’t on a lap­top or desk­top. It’s on a smart­phone.

A decade ago, only a small cadre of se­lect regime and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials had ac­cess to smart­phones. Now, there are an es­ti­mated 2.5 mil­lion to 3 mil­lion mo­bile phones in North Korea, a coun­try of 25 mil­lion. Mo­bile phone use has blos­somed over the past five years with the in­tro­duc­tion of 3G ser­vices, thanks in large part to two for­eign in­vestors — Lox­ley Pa­cific of Thai­land and Egypt’s Oras­com Tele­com Me­dia and Tech­nol­ogy.

Like the walled-off in­tranet, North Korea’s phones deny ac­cess to the out­side world. North Kore­ans can surf the do­mes­tic in­tranet or snap self­ies, and have hun­dreds of ring tones to choose from. But they can­not re­ceive or place calls to num­bers out­side that net­work — the rest of the world, in other words.

For­eign­ers in North Korea are rel­e­gated to a dif­fer­ent net­work and can­not make calls to, or re­ceive calls from, lo­cal num­bers. They can buy lo­cal phones if they want, but the de­vices will be stripped of the apps and fea­tures that they nor­mally carry and se­curely coded so that the apps can’t be added on later. Wi-Fi use is banned for North Kore­ans and tightly re­stricted and mon­i­tored to block sur­rep­ti­tious pig­gy­back­ing on for­eign­ers’ sig­nals.

North Korea un­doubt­edly im­ports and re­brands some of its IT prod­ucts. But over the past few months, two com­pa­nies have gen­er­ated quite a stir among Ap­ple fans with prod­ucts billed to be wholly do­mes­tic: the “Jin­dal­lae (Aza­lea) III” mo­bile phone and the “Ry­onghung iPad.” The gad­gets’ sim­i­lar­ity to Ap­ple prod­ucts, and the flat-out ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the “iPad” name, isn’t es­pe­cially sur­pris­ing, as Kim Jong Un is known to like Ap­ple prod­ucts.

It seems North Korean coders have also lifted some ideas from Ap­ple.

Out­side ex­perts be­lieve a pro­gram sim­i­lar to what Ap­ple uses in its OS X and iOS is the ba­sis of the booby-trap that thwarts at­tempts to dis­able se­cu­rity func­tions in Red Star. It’s now a sta­ple on North Korean phones.

And by 2014, all mo­bile phone op­er­at­ing sys­tems had been up­dated to in­clude the wa­ter­mark­ing sys­tem to re­ject apps or me­dia that don’t carry a gov­ern­ment sig­na­ture of ap­proval. It’s the same mech­a­nism Ap­ple uses to block unau­tho­rized ap­pli­ca­tions from the App Store, but in North Korea’s case serves to con­trol ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion.

As in all of North Korea, Kim Jong Un is ever present. So it’s per­haps fit­ting that one of the most pop­u­lar apps is a role play­ing game based on a lo­cally cre­ated hit anime se­ries, called “Boy Gen­eral.” It costs $1.80.


North Korean stu­dents use com­put­ers at the Sci-Tech Com­plex in Pyongyang, which are lim­ited to the na­tion’s in­tranet.

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