Technology

North Korea: surfing the net in the world's most isolated nation

Primary school children using PC Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Reporters took photos of primary school children using Dell-branded PCs in Pyongyang in 2011

What's the point of a computer in a hermit country sealed off from the internet? What use can a smartphone be if the smartest uses are blocked? And why would anyone learn computer coding in a country closed off from the world-wide-web?

These are the conundrums at the core of the puzzle about technology in North Korea. If the south is the most teched-up nation in the world, the north ought to be the least - except it's not.

At least one in 12 people there have smartphones. Not only that but North Korea has some very sophisticated computer programmers designing clever applications.

We know that North Korea has so many smartphones because its 3G network is run by Koryolink, a joint venture between an Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom, and the North Korean state. The Egyptian end publishes figures which add up to about two million North Korean subscribers.

Mobile manners

So great is the use of mobile phones that North Koreans have been advised on etiquette.

Some of it resonates everywhere. The main South Korean news agency got hold of a northern magazine which complained that "speaking loudly or arguing over the phone in public places where many people are gathered is thoughtless and impolite behaviour".

The magazine also bemoaned the habit of not identifying oneself when answering the phone.

This meant the caller had to enquire along these lines: "Is it you, Comrade Yeong-cheol?"

Some problems are the same the world over; some are not.

But the bigger question is: how do North Koreans manage without the global internet? With difficulty, is the answer.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption These mobile phone users were photographed in Pyongyang in 2010

Cookery tips

A few bright students are trained and do have access from controlled and monitored institutions while the mass of the citizenry have to make do with the internal North Korean intranet called the Kwangmyong.

This is some way short of the sum of all knowledge and delight provided by the worldwide web.

It does relay the words and deeds of the Supreme Leader but also recipes, including:"Our nation's beautiful dietary manner" and "Rabbit meat tonic broth: Do remember not to feed the rabbit anything but water for a day before slaughter - read the recipe to find out why".

There's also advice in English, Korean and Chinese on diet and age, the kind of health webpage which would generate clicks on any website anywhere.

"During the meal, don't drink too much water," it warns.

"If drinking too much water, the gastric juice is diluted and the food is not digested well. And in summer, the bacteria in the food go down to the intestine without being killed by the stomach acidity and can cause the disease".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The North Korean intranet provides cooking tips tailored for local audiences

For the general populace this intranet has to suffice. The authorities are hyper-keen to close the slightest crack in the wall to the internet outside.

Border patrols

According to North Korea Tech, which monitors technology there, foreign visitors now have to de-activate their Sim cards on departure.

They can buy cards which give web access on entry but, in the past it was possible that they could be left behind, still loaded with unused internet access for locals to use. That gap has been plugged.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption North Korea tightly controls the information locals can see on its intranet

So has the possibility that North Koreans near foreign embassies and the offices of international organisations could access the buildings' wi-fi.

In August, foreign missions were told that "signals of regional wireless networks… produce some effect on our surroundings" and, therefore, their licences were revoked.

The ban followed a report on a South Korean website that demand for property around embassies in Pyongyang had risen because of the ability of neighbours to furtively make use of unencrypted wi-fi.

There is a continual game of cat and mouse between the North Korean authorities and people who want to talk to the outside world - for which there are fierce penalties.

Some may, for example, want to get onto South Korean or Chinese networks near the northern or southern borders, but Martyn Williams who runs the North Korea Tech monitoring site tells the BBC this isn't easy.

"It's very difficult for the average North Korean to get near the South Korean border because that's such a heavily guarded security area", he says.

"It's difficult but easier to get near the Chinese border and there you do see people inserting Chinese Sim cards into their phones, or they'll have smuggled phones from China.

"If they can get onto the Chinese cellular network, they can make calls to anywhere in the world. They can also access the internet without the North Korean government stopping them.

Image copyright REUTERS/KCNA
Image caption North Korea's news agency KCNA published this photograph in 2013 showing North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un visiting what it said was a local smartphone factory

"One of the things the North Korean government does is heavily patrol the border and try to find people using these cellphones."

Video game malware

With such constrained access to the outside world, it's a wonder any kind of sophisticated computer programming exists in North Korea - but it does.

"When I talk to people who work with North Koreans for business, they are impressed with the level levels of sophistication of some of the programming," says Mr Williams.

"Of course, it's not just for commercial reasons they're doing this. Offensive cyber-capability is something big which many nations are building up.

"It seems North Korea sees it as useful tool on the military side but also something that could be used on the business side."

Just like other countries, the North Korean militarised regime needs top coders to intrude on the systems of other countries and to resist hacking by the intelligence agencies of other countries.

South Korea certainly thinks that North Korea listens in.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption North Korea is accused of distributing malware-infected games that were installed by thousands of South Koreans

According to the head of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, North Korea infected about 20,000 South Korean smartphones with malware hidden in games between May and September in a bid to monitor their owners. Pyongyang denies the claim.

But Martyn Williams says that bright students are indeed selected and then trained in computer skills at specialised institutions to carry out such programmes, but he adds there are also bright software engineers working on apps designed for civilian use.

North Korea launched the Samjiyon tablet last year, running on the Android system and pre-loaded with games including what appears to be a rip-off of Angry Birds.

Image copyright NorthKoreaTech.org
Image caption This adapted version of Angry Birds came pre-installed on North Korean tablets

The tablet was also loaded with the eBook Gone with the Wind, the classic novel set on a slave plantation in the American Deep South.

According to the Washington Post, the novel was accompanied by an introduction which said the book was "particularly useful for understanding how modern capitalism spread to all of the United States".

The difficulty for bright people trying to innovate in North Korea is that without easy and constant access to the web, they don't always know what the competition might be.

Geoffrey See, who founded the Choson Exchange - which tries to improve skills and knowledge in North Korea - recently organised an IT conference in Pyongyang.

"We often find that when we talk to the smaller IT companies there, they are developing products for which there is already a very strong product on the market," he says.

Image copyright EBay
Image caption Versions of North Korea's Samjiyon tablet have been listed outside the country on eBay

Cut off from the world, North Korean software developers risk toiling in darkness on products which others have already made.

Mr See thinks the way forward is better links.

"You need a lot of collaboration with international programmers, being plugged into that network of programmers and venture capitalists who are able to tell you who else is working on such a product," he explains.

And therein lies the problem. The North Korean regime clearly does not want to grant its people that kind of access to the outside world.

Twenty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall was pushed down.

If you talk to East Germans now, they often say that their real yearning was not for some abstract idea of freedom but just to get a first-hand view of the outside world.

Kim Jong-un knows the dangers of that. But for how long can the gaps be plugged?

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites