Why North Koreans Prefer Word of Mouth Over Email

In a Country Where Dissent Is Harshly Punished, a Digital Footprint Isn’t Worth the Risk

Twenty years after it began changing lives in other countries, the internet isn’t even a concept for the average North Korean—so much so that most people in the country of 25 million literally don’t know what they are missing.

And that’s by design.

One of the pillars of Kim Jong Un’s vise-grip on the lives of his people is propaganda: All news originates from the same government propaganda bureau, photographs and video of Kim are tightly coordinated, and there is absolutely no independent media. There’s no satellite TV, and there are no foreign newspapers. Radios are fixed so they receive only domestic broadcasts. Illegally modifying a radio to tune into stations from neighboring South Korea can land someone in jail. If widespread access were ever allowed, the internet would pose a massive threat to the regime.

But keeping it out completely would deprive the ruling regime of some important benefits. In a country that’s been hit by waves of sanctions, the internet can assist with international trade and communications. So in 2001, the government had a company called Sili Bank set up an email relay between Pyongyang and Shenyang, a border city in China. Messages were held in each city and exchanged in a batch once an hour at a cost of at least $1.50 per message. The line was upgraded to an always-on connection in 2006, but the system was still limited to email and restricted to official use by the government and major trading companies.

The first full-time, high-bandwidth internet connection started in 2010 when Star, a North Korean joint venture with Thailand’s Loxley Pacific, started offering service in Pyongyang to expats, the offices of foreign organizations, and some government officers and ministries.

Because access to the service itself is physically restricted, there are probably only a few tens of thousands of users at most. So the government doesn’t appear to bother devoting any resources to filtering or censorship. In fact, for a long time, visitors from China noted they could access sites like Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter with more ease in Pyongyang than they can in Beijing.

Since 2013, internet service has also been available to resident foreigners and visiting tourists through Koryolink, a national cellular operator that was launched in 2008 with Egypt’s Orascom Telecom. It has more than 2 million subscribers, but only foreigners get internet access. And it’s not cheap, either—it costs 10 euros for 50 megabytes of data. In contrast, $10 will buy 1 gigabyte of data on the T-Mobile network in the United States. Nevertheless, it has been valuable for North Korea watchers like me, as it has delivered some intriguing glimpses from tourists posting pictures as they travel. For instance, Jaka Parker, a worker at the Indonesian embassy, ran a popular Instagram account with photos from his daily life that included sights across Pyongyang and Friday prayers at the Iranian embassy’s mosque. Some foreigners have live-streamed from the city. But perhaps because of this, earlier this year Koryolink was forced to start censoring access to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and some South Korean news sites.

In recent years, internet access has also been extended to elite universities. Dedicated internet rooms have been set up at places like Kim Il Sung University, the country’s top seat of learning. When then–Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea in 2013, he was shown students accessing Google at the university and quickly picked up on one reality of internet access for these elite citizens: surveillance. “It appeared supervised in that people were not able to use the internet without someone else watching them,” he wrote in a blog post at the time.

His daughter Sophie, who accompanied him on the trip, picked up on something else. “One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared,” she wrote. “More disturbing: When our group walked in—a noisy bunch, with media in tow—not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.”

North Koreans learn self-censorship from an early age. It’s key to survival, so few would ever dare attempt to sneak visits to websites that might get them in trouble. The stakes for their lives and those of their families are too high.

There is regular debate among analysts about how much reality any visitor to North Korea sees, but Sophie Schmidt’s observations seem to suggest the students were just going through the motions to impress their VIP visitors. It’s entirely possible in a country that is so closely controlled.

But, whatever the truth of that visit, a foreign lecturer who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology says limits on internet access are real. “The graduate students have it, the undergrads don’t,” he told me in an interview in 2014. He also confirmed the physical monitoring of internet access. But despite the Koryolink mobile network censorship, blocking at the universities is still limited—because it’s not really necessary. North Koreans learn self-censorship from an early age. It’s key to survival, so few would ever dare attempt to sneak visits to websites that might get them in trouble. The stakes for their lives and those of their families are too high.

In place of the internet, the North Korean government is doing something that no other country has done: building a nationwide intranet that offers email and websites but is totally shut off from the rest of the world. It’s an audacious attempt to usher in some of the benefits of electronic communications while maintaining complete control on an entire population. It probably wouldn’t work anywhere else in the world, but the North Korean government keeps its people in such fear that few dare attempt dissent.

The network, called Kwangmyong, currently connects libraries, universities, and government departments and is slowly making its way into homes of better-off citizens. It houses a number of domestic websites, an online learning system, and email. The sites themselves aren’t much to get excited about: They belong to the national news service, universities, government IT service centers, and a handful of other official organizations. There’s also apparently a cooking site with recipes for Korean dishes.

One of the newest services is a video-on-demand system from state-run television. The “Manbang” service is accessed through a set-top box and provides live streams of four TV channels. It can also be used to access an on-demand library of recent TV programming and was recently featured in a program on state TV.

But it’s no Netflix. The output of state TV channels, like the rest of the media, is concentrated on the activities of Kim Jong-un, the ruling party, and the military. For the most part, either the movies are dramatic tales of bravery against the invading Japanese forces during World War II or American forces during the Korean War, or they’re dramas that idolize ordinary citizens who make sacrifices for the good of the ruling party or their love of Kim Jong-un. This summer, Korean Central Television broadcast the Rio de Janeiro Olympics—roughly 45 minutes each evening of competition, about three days late.

So North Korea’s internet hookup might not be bringing much information in to the country. But we are seeing a growing number of Pyongyang-based websites, accessible to the real internet, that send the country’s propaganda to the outside world. Surfing them provides a glimpse of the unrelenting information diet that North Koreans consume daily.

Top and center of most such sites is a section dealing with the activities of Kim Jong-un—a key piece of propaganda that is meant to show him working tirelessly for the good of the nation. Most of the rest of the news deals with political statements, stories of citizens doing good for the nation, scientific breakthroughs, and other items intended to give the impression of a nation moving forward. To a media-savvy foreign eye, it’s not very convincing. Take, for instance, the major site Naenara. It comes from the Foreign Language Publishing House, the government outfit responsible for translating and publishing propaganda books and magazines in several foreign languages, and is full of the propaganda that is fed nonstop to people inside the country.

Voice of Korea, the country’s international shortwave broadcaster, also puts online clips of its broadcasts every day. Other major sites include the state-run Korean Central News Agency, the Rodong Sinmun national daily newspaper (which includes PDFs of each edition), and Voice of Korea shortwave radio station.

But despite the growing range of options available, no electronic channel offers a truly secure means of communication. In a social system where people are hesitant to share dissenting political views with members of their own families, putting such thoughts in text messages or on the domestic web is unthinkable. So instead they rely on word of mouth—whispered conversations with their closest friends that could result in them being reported and sent to a prison camp. Or worse.


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