What the North Korean internet really looks like

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Screen shot of the Rodong Shibun state media website
Image caption,
Most of the websites are in Korean, but some have English versions as well

North Korea notoriously restricts access to the internet for its citizens, but it does, in fact, maintain some websites which can be seen outside the country.

Most of these sites have always been accessible outside North Korea but on Tuesday an exhaustive list was revealed apparently for the first time - turns out that there aren't that many.

The list, reportedly unveiled by a US-based engineer, reveals fewer than 30 websites. Predictably, there is propaganda as well as more mundane ministry and tourism information, but you can also find North Korean recipes and films on there.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
The ground test for a new type of rocket engine was covered in depth on state media news sites

So how did this great unveiling happen?

It went like this: North Korea's main Domain Name System (DNS) server was sent a frequent and automated request by a US-based engineer for access to all the internet domains in the country, possibly merely out of mischief. The server is usually configured to reject this.

But for some reason - most likely by mistake - it obliged on one occasion, late on Tuesday. The engineer then posted the list online, TechCrunch reports.

North Korea watchers and analysts were already familiar with these sites but didn't know the extent of North Korea's online presence.

"When North Korea brings up a new website they never publicise it. Either someone finds it by accident or it might show up in a search engine," says Martyn Williams who runs the website North Korea tech from San Francisco.

"We knew about most of these, but weren't sure what else existed".

For the uninitiated, here's what you might see on a wander around the North Korean internet.

1. There is a lot of news about the 'Supreme Leader's Activities'

Most of the websites are in Korean, but some like rodong.rep.kp - the site for the main newspaper Rodong Sinmun - have an English site too.

It includes a section dedicated to what leader Kim Jong-un might be up to on any given day titled "Supreme Leader's Activities".

His visit to a fruit farm where he delivered some guidance, presumably on fruit farming, was featured, as was his speech to the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth Movement.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images

Of course, his "guiding" of Tuesday's ground test for a new type of rocket engine to launch satellites dominated the headlines.

"These websites are really there to push North Korea's voice on the global stage, as if it is a normal member of the international community," says Mr Williams.

"We never know if any of it's true as there's no way to verify it independently".

2. The websites are quite unsophisticated

Many of the websites, which can be painfully slow to load, are basic. Many of them are not updated very frequently.

The news-focussed sites are updated daily, but only present state propaganda, says Chad O'Carroll from NK News, a website that monitors North Korean media. He notes that they get very little traffic, are poorly designed and not user friendly.

They make minimal effort to mimic the slick appearance of international news sites.

"They don't try to ape Western media. When you go on the website its obvious its news from North Korea. It's not dressed up to look like a slick international media outlet," says Mr Williams.

3. It wants the world to know it has an arts and culture scene

A food site cooks.org.kp is filled with pictures of "Korea's famous recipes".

It has a listing of all the main restaurants in North Korea including Okryugwan - the most famous one selling Pyongyang style cold noodle - as well as the Pyongyang Dog Meat Restaurant, which gives away its speciality in its name.

For South Koreans, the food might look a little bland, but the site explains why North Korean food is so good.

Answer: "Taste and aroma, beautiful colours, variety and its healthy for the body."

If you're in the mood for a film, korfilm.com.kp is a website highlighting North Korea's film industry.

The Pyongyang International Film Festival is happening now and heavily promoted on the site with detailed instructions on how to take part. The three kinds of films you can watch at the festival are "art films, documentaries and animated movies".

When the engineer who found that momentary chink in the armour posted the list, it sparked a temporary frenzy within the tech forums.

But what it doesn't tell us is anything about North Korea's intranet - a mysterious and closed system for its citizens that doesn't connect to the internet, likely to be far more revealing about the workings of the state.