It wasn't until the late 2000s that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – more commonly known as North Korea – got its first internet connection, but now the isolated state has a cellphone network, smartphones, a national intranet, apps and games in the country.

Martyn Williams collects and curates what little is publicly known about the country's technology scene in the NK Tech website.

Image: newly developed science park Image credit: Uwe Brodrecht/Wikipedia
Image: newly developed science park Image credit: Uwe Brodrecht/Wikipedia

Williams grew up in the UK in the 70s and 80s when the cold war was very much still in motion, before perestroika and glasnost fully took hold, when Berlin was still divided between east and west and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He took an interest in radio, and in particular listened to shortwave broadcasts from all over the world, including stations like Radio Moscow.

"It was always interesting to me to hear the news from an alternative point of view," he says, speaking with Techworld in a telephone interview.

"When I moved to Japan in 1995, I took an interest in North Korea and the systems they had there, and especially from the news and information point of view. The way that information and news is controlled by the government, and delivered to North Koreans."

He visited the north of the divided country in 2002. But it wasn't until those first internet connections were established that small nuggets of insight became more available from the country, about the technology they had developed, the infrastructure, and the devices that people began to use.

Although the vast majority of people in North Korea do not have access to the wider internet there is now a nation-wide intranet and a functioning cellphone network. The country has publicly celebrated wider advances in science and technology in recent years, advertised most loudly through the state-run KCNA news network, with infamous developments including its nuclear, rocket and satellite programmes.

When Kim Jong Un took the reins from his father, Kim Jong Il, he seemed to be positioning himself as progressive on science and technology. But how much of that is thanks to government policy - or is it wider advances in tech, or a mixture of both?

"In terms of IT, it does keep progressing – I'm not sure how much of that is down to Kim Jong Un or progress in technology everywhere," Williams explains. "Some of the biggest leaps that have happened in the last decade or so have been the development of a national intranet and the cellphone network – those were both started under Kim Jong Il, who was also very interested in computers.

"The rocket programme, the satellite programme, the nuclear programme, that's all scientists doing the work," says Williams. "So scientists are becoming more important in the country and technology is being talked up. It's not necessarily 'information technology' but there had been these breakthroughs in the last few years, and Kim Jong Un has been rewarding the scientists with fancy apartments in Pyongyang and things like that."

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea has had to endure waves of sanctions, and is still in a state of armed truce with South Korea following an official armistice to the devastating Korean War in the 1950s – the only war in which PRC and American forces have clashed militarily.

A new round of sanctions were applied following an escalation of threats of nuclear warfare between the White House and North Korea. Its ties with old ally China still exist, but the latter recently conceded to American pressure in also applying some sanctions.

So the country is isolated even more. But this isolation has led to the North becoming stronger in software than hardware development, and has allowed it to a certain degree to focus on science and technology, where it is human capital that counts. This would perhaps be consistent with the British government's recent unusual step of apportioning blame for the WannaCry ransomware attack at North Korea, which might well have been put together by the country's home-grown software talent. 

"It goes back to how it's easier for them to build human capital than military hardware," he says. "Hacking is an area where North Korea has much more of a chance to make more of an impact – it's easier to do. You can find the talented individuals and train them up much more easily than you can build an aircraft carrier or something like that."

As far as is known, the national intranet in North Korea runs on a fibre optic backbone, which was originally installed roughly a decade ago by the UNDP as part of a development project.

Most of the infrastructure will be running "almost invariably" on Chinese equipment, Williams says, although the flow of this equipment might have slowed somewhat with recent sanctions.

"Even now, telecoms is not an area that's heavily sanctioned," Williams says. "The sanctions are more on the military stuff. Some of the telecoms stuff can arguably be dual use but a lot of the stuff isn't. The cellphone network was installed by an Egyptian company under a joint venture with the North Koreans – I don't know what equipment they used, but it was probably, again, a lot of Chinese equipment."

"The computers and things – North Korea makes a big deal of making its own cellphones and computers but they're not made there, they're all OEM from Chinese manufacturers. So that has been the major base for a lot of this, the Chinese IT industry, which in a way doesn't make it much different from a lot of other countries - so much Chinese technology is being used around the world."

According to Williams, there is an increasing number of domestic applications that are based on the intranet and for consumption by domestic cellphones, although these tend to run on Google's Android operating system.

Image: Red Star 3.0 desktop Image credit: NK Tech

While mobiles run on Android, the country does have its own Linux variant called Red Star, but this is usually used for operating servers. A desktop variant is, however, available.

"Most of the computers we see in businesses and classrooms tend to be running Windows," Williams says. "So Red Star isn't quite as widely used as people believe it is. It's more used on the back-end than on machines for consumption."

Foreigners typically don't get access to the intranet, so what's actually on it is relatively unknown. But researchers do know a thing or two via clips pieced together from official channels.

"It's a basic intranet, so it's all IP based – there are web browsers and a bunch of domestic websites," Williams says. "Someone took a photo that listed about 20 domestic websites, and I looked into what those websites were and wrote about those." He has collected a list of North Korean websites available on the internet, which you can find here

"One of the big things they use it for – you get shots of computer classrooms on the TV news at different places, universities, colleges, workplaces. Education is a big thing. There will be lectures given from one of the universities and they'll be sent nationwide on the intranet, and people will be able to sit in classrooms and follow the lectures along and study. That seems to be one of the big uses: spreading education nationwide."

That will also look like papers and textbooks being placed on the national intranet, some of them downloaded from the internet and then copied onto the internet. According to Williams, some university students do have internet access, but again, this is monitored so they tend to be careful about what they do with it.

"There's a lot of news and information websites, but they're news and information from a North Korean perspective – all the central propaganda.

"There are multiple media outlets but the news comes from the same place, so it really doesn't matter where you get your news from, it's all the same. Of course, no international news is on there."

But there are also cooking websites and even a BBC iPlayer-esque service that has at least the last seven days of programming from North Korean networks on-demand, which can be accessed through set-top boxes.

There is also a domestic online shopping portal, and the country has rolled out its own version of debit cards. But for the majority of the country computers and therefore access to the intranet isn't found at home.

In the early days of the internet, early adopters were attracted to the free flow of discussion worldwide through Usenet groups, IRC and email. But there's no free flow in North Korea because everything is monitored, Williams says, and even if people are taking place in discussions, this too would be monitored and controlled.

"North Koreans are very good at self-censorship," Williams says. "They know what they can and can't say. So people wouldn't be trying to get away with anything, because it would get noticed." This kind of soft-power censorship is reinforced by mobile applications that will, for example, display your browsing history – but not provide a function to delete it.

"This sort of application is a way of letting you know: ‘we know everything you're looking at, here's a list of it, and you can't get rid of anything so just be careful what you do'," Williams says. "There's a sort of unspoken part of it. That sophistication we have seen in the last year or two wasn't there before."

A combination of frenzied reporting in the west, the country's own vitriolic outbursts through state media, and the isolation of the enduring state means that it is frequently othered in the press - and people can forget, underneath all the international coverage, that it is full of ordinary people just as every country is. And so the consumption of media, apps, and now videogames, shouldn't really be a surprise.

"There are several games that have come out and a lot of them are clones, but there are some domestic ones," Williams says. "One of the first, I think, was a clone of Angry Birds, ported into Korean by the North Koreans. There's a couple of interesting things here – it shouldn't be surprising, but it is, and that in a way talks to people's built-in biases about North Korea because of the way it is often portrayed in the media.

"But we forget that 98 percent of the country are ordinary people, they're not military generals, and they're not the kind of people we portray on TV. So in a way, it shouldn't be surprising people like computer games.

Image: the Ullim tablet Image credit: 38 North 

The other interesting side to the cellphone network, Williams says, is why North Korea has one in the first place – doesn't that seem antithetical to walling off the country from the outside world and controlling the information that gets in and out?

"As soon as you provide the cellphone network they're having to fight against the flow of information, they're having to worry about people secretly communicating in different ways – it could be anything from ‘when I send this code it means this'," he says. "It's aiding distribution of information. Well, it is and it isn't because the network is monitored, but there's the possibility that more can be done. In a way it would be easier not to give people this network, I mean, why bother?

"So it's interesting to look at why this network exists. And I think one of the reasons might be it talks about the increased smuggled content into the country, and North Koreans are seeing the cellphones on the South Korean TV dramas. And as TV got smuggled into the country, it risked looking like North Korea was behind – if every South Korean had a cellphone and they were used on TV all the time, maybe North Koreans were asking themselves: 'why don't we have this?'

"That might be one of the reasons why this network came about. And games as well – it doesn't just entertain people, but it's something else, that they see on smuggled-in content."

It's all educated guesswork: cellphones are, of course, simply quite convenient.

Williams says that as someone trying to cover a specific slice of life in North Korea – with its own problems with censorship in South Korea, where officials attempted to block access to the website – he has had some frustrations with the way coverage is portrayed in the media.

"I think what's often forgotten is that 98 percent of the country are regular people and they are suffering under this regime. It's often forgotten that when there are 100,000 people marching in Kim Il Sung Square shouting death to America, these are people – the lucky ones – and even those people don't have freedom of speech or probably enough food. But they live in the capital and there are a lot of people in the countryside that don't even have electricity.

"So everything North Korea puts out is propaganda, and to a certain extent, sometimes we fall for the propaganda by taking it all too literally or seriously and forgetting about the other sides of the country.

"I guess that's my main frustration – it's all taken too literally and a lot of the coverage doesn't see beyond the propaganda into what's really coming out of the country at many levels and the real humanitarian disaster that is happening now."