For 25 millions North Koreans, the internet is an impossibility. Only a few thousand privileged members of the hermit kingdom’s society can access the global internet, while even the country’s heavily censored internal intranet is out of reach for the majority of the population. Getting access to free and open information isn’t an option.
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New research from South Korea-based human rights organization People for Successful Corean Reunification (Pscore) details the reality for those who—in very limited circumstances—manage to get online in North Korea. The report reveals a days-long approval process to gain internet access, after which monitors sit next to people while they browse and approve their activities every five minutes. Even then, what can be accessed reveals little about the world outside North Korea’s borders.
Human rights conference RightsCo
Documentation from the NGO is being presented today at the human rights conference RightsCon and sheds light on the regime with the most limited internet freedoms, which fall far below the restrictive and surveilled internet access in China and Iran. For millions of people in North Korea, the internet simply doesn’t exist.
“I was taught about the World Wide Web, and even had to memorize it for an exam, but I only knew about the internet in theory,” one North Korean defector who left the country told Pscore researchers. “I knew it was a sort of network where you can search but didn’t actually know what it was.” Another said they didn’t “know the concept of Wi-Fi,” let alone have any clue about Google.
Getting an accurate picture of what happens within Kim Jong Un’s sealed-off state is incredibly challenging. Officials control all information flows and present state propaganda to the world. Analysts turn to those who escape and defect, at great personal risk, for a glimpse of North Korean reality. Pscore’s internet freedom report is based on 24 face-to-face interviews with defectors and a survey of 158 others. All left North Korea between 2012 and 2022.
The report says North Korean researcher Kim Suk-Han—all defector names within the research are pseudonyms for safety reasons—used the internet five times when they were living in the country. They had used the internet while on a trip to China and so had high expectations, they told the researchers. Instead, they faced limited access and constant surveillance.
“A librarian sits between two internet users and continuously monitors what people on both sides are searching up,” Kim said in testimony to the researchers. “Every five minutes, the screen freezes automatically, and the librarian must do a fingerprint authentication to allow further internet use.” A state security officer was also always nearby, they said.
People were allowed to use the internet for an hour, and if someone wanted more time, they would need to obtain new permission, Kim said. It took around two days to get permission from authorities to use the internet, a task requiring approvals from various officials. If someone applied too often, they would be made to wait, Kim said. “Every Korean website is blocked, and only Chinese or English websites are available.”
Over the past decade, there has been an increased number of digital devices in North Korea. Around 50 to 80 percent of adults may now have mobile phones, allowing them to text and call family members. Yet the use of these phones is highly controlled—data speeds are low, with devices capturing screenshots every few minutes and code that only allows government-approved content to be shown. And internet penetration is at nowhere near the same level.
“North Korean people cannot use it, not because of the infrastructure or not because of the country’s poor conditions,” says Nam Bada, the secretary general of Pscore and editor of the report. “It is only because of the governmental policy.”
A few dozen families with connections to Kim Jong-Un and some foreigners have unrestricted access to the global internet, while a “few thousand” people—including government officials, researchers, and students studying IT—can access a surveillance-heavy version of it, according to the report and previous research. North Koreans like Kim who are allowed some foreign travel, usually for business, can sometimes access the global web while abroad.
Mitch Haszard, a senior threat intelligence analyst at security firm Recorded Future, which has previously analyzed North Korean internet traffic, says Chinese and Russian internet service providers hook the country up to the global network, and access by foreign visitors makes up some of what can be seen externally. This may have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic when there were fewer foreigners in North Korea and its borders were closed.
According to multiple defectors quoted in the Pscore report, global internet access is only available in certain locations and buildings within North Korea. One person claimed internet connections at the National Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, were only available on the second floor, and just eight computers were connected. Around five people were granted use, they said.
Another defector told the Pscore researchers that when they got permission to travel to Pyongyang to use the internet, they tried to download medical research papers but could only access the titles of the papers and the author names. “I knew the concept of the global internet when I was in North Korea, but I didn’t know that so much information was exchanged through it,” said Shin Yong-Rok, another defector.
Technology in North Korea – Martyn Williams
Martyn Williams is a senior fellow with the Stimson Center and 38 North project who has extensively studied technology in North Korea but was not involved with the report. Williams says the testimonies track with those of other defectors but add new details about the levels of surveillance people face. In general, Williams says, internet access “appears to be available for officially sanctioned uses, such as some universities, research establishments, and likely some trade organizations and other establishments.” University students Williams spoke to have previously said that they are required to state why they need to use the internet and are monitored when they get online.
Williams points to a 2020 North Korean law that has ramped up the country’s efforts to stop foreign information from being accessed in the country. In recent years, outside information—including TV shows and South Korean content—has been smuggled across the border using USB drives, giving people a glimpse of the outside world. “The new law levies harsh penalties, up to and including death, on people caught with foreign information,” Williams says. (In 2021 it was reported that a man who smuggled copies of the dystopian Netflix thriller Squid Game into North Korea and sold them was sentenced to death.)
While tightly controlled access to the internet is available for a few thousand “elites,” the local intranet is marginally more accessible—in theory, at least. Known as Kwangmyong, the intranet offers only a handful of websites. “Citizens can access [the intranet] from their phones or from computers,” Williams says. “Over the years, we’ve seen lots of websites shown and offered, and it appears that many major sectors of the government have their own sites with official information.” Some online shopping has recently become available, according to reports.
Defectors told Pscore that intranet prices were generally too high for most people, meaning a lot of access happens at official buildings, such as universities and libraries, where surveillance levels are high. People willing to take the risk can try to get around the system. “I’ve secretly played the game [Dota] twice through the intranet with people in another region,” said one defector, given the pseudonym Jung Woo-Jin. “I’ve only played three times. If you play more, your IP will be exposed by using more than a certain time, then your place will be recorded.” Most people included in the study said intranet use is impractical.