Reports of a massive, nine-and-a-half hour internet outage after a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in North Korea – possibly by the US, possibly in revenge for the Sony hack – have raised eyebrows.
The country famously censors its internet to the point of uselessness. So just how much of an effect did the outage actually have?
It might be seen as the ultimate equaliser in the rest of the world, but internet in North Korea is a decidedly class-based thing.
While a select group of students and government officials – plus, of course, foreigners – have access to the outside world, the rest of the country has to make do with a sort of intranet, known as the Kwanmyong. This, from the BBC, suggests it’s mainly based on recipes and health advice.
Technology blog North Korea Tech reported in November that the Kwanmyong has been upgraded, with a new translation function and a “managing program in which users themselves can change, design and insert field structure through the building of databases, creating, recording, adding, deleting and changing, and made a free transforming tool between different databases and Kwangmyong”. So that was exciting.
There's also evidence foreigners have access to social media – not least from the excellent everydaydprk Instagram account, which depicts everyday life in the country.
Just as in the rest of the world, smartphones are very definitely A Thing in North Korea. So much so that local media has lambasted consumers for“impolite behaviour” when it comes to phone use.
As mobile phones are being used increasingly in today's society, there has been a tendency among some people to neglect proper phone etiquette… Speaking loudly or arguing over the phone in public places where many people are gathered is thoughtless and impolite behaviour.
The country has manufactured its own smartphone, the Arirang AS1201, named after a popular folk song, and a tablet, the Achim, although pundits reckon both are even cheaper knock-offs of already-quite-cheap Chinese gadgets.
The country’s only mobile network, Koryolink, is 75 per cent owned by Egyptian firm Orascom Telecom Media (the rest is owned by the state, natch), and runs a 3G service, allowing users to access a very limited online service.
Launched in December 2008, it hit two million subscribers in late May, just 15 months after it passed the one million-mark, according to North Korea Tech, and now covers most major towns.
The service doesn’t come cheap, mind, meaning it’s out of reach to most North Korean citizens. And while foreigners used to sneakily leave behind their Sim cards, which are less tightly controlled, for locals to use, the government has cracked down on that practice.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Citizens can get a bit of signal from Chinese and South Korean mobile networks near borders, and the entrepreneurial have started a business smuggling phones from both countries into North Korea, and giving those with family abroad a way to keep in touch.
But like other governments, North Korea has seen the benefits of evolving technology, and has even courted some of the world’s largest tech companies.
In January 2013, Google chairman Eric Schmidt was invited to the country and took along his daughter, Sophie. Although she was a self-confessed “North Korea amateur”, her blog provides a pretty good insight into how internet in the country works.
Here’s her description of the country’s internet access:
North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this. On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo'd their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real internet. Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff.
And some more points worth noting:
- On the dangers of taking technology into the country: “We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.”
- On the North Korean Traffic Girls of Pyongyang, whose robotic movements briefly turned them into online stars: “Riddle me this: How do you explain to someone that she's a YouTube sensation if she's never heard of the Internet?”
- On Koryolink (remember, this was early 2013): “No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles.”
- On North Korean geeks: “Those in the know are savvier than you'd expect. Exhibit A: Eric fielded questions like, "When is the next version of Android coming out?"and "Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?" Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you're under international bank sanctions.“
- On new technology developed there: What's so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it's not like they're going to export this technology. They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.
But whether locals were badly affected by the hack or not, what’s clear is that for North Korea, technology is a source of national pride.
That’s borne out in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s statement following yesterday’s hack, in which he called the US an “ill-famed cesspool of justice” and the Sony hack a “righteous deed”. Not afraid of a bit of hyperbole, that one…