This week, the Internet was buzzing with reports that the typically secretive North Korean government had set up its own Facebook and Twitter accounts. While it turns out that the accounts were set up by foreign supporters of Kim Jong Il's regime rather than the North Korean government itself, the story has raised interest in how the Hermit Kingdom interacts with the online world. So can anyone in North Korea actually get on the Internet?
Very few of them can. A small number of people -- almost all of them government officials -- are permitted to access the Internet in North Korea. Because the country has no commercial Internet service providers, they typically get on the net through dial-up modems connected to special phone lines or with mobile phones via satellite. Around 20,000 North Koreans have access to cell phones, but most are forbidden from accessing the Internet.
Since 2000, North Koreans have had access, via dial-up modem, to an intranet known as the Kwangmyong, which includes an email server, search engine, a number of user-created websites that are closely monitored by the government, and some filtered content from the outside Web. The Kwangmyong is theoretically free to all citizens but because almost no North Koreans have home computers, it is largely used by university students and professors to share academic information. Think of it as a kind of Stalinist Wikipedia.
Attempting to access to the Internet illegally can be extremely risky and punishable by long sentences in a labor camp, but along the Chinese border region, cell phones are fast proliferating, allowing the transmission of news and even video to the other side. It's because of this that events like the recent currency devaluation, which led to widespread panic and rioting, were known to the outside world almost immediately. (Once, it might have taken almost five years for the information to get out.) Cell-phone videos have also provided the outside world with rare and previously unknown glimpses of life inside the country, as well as documentation of human rights abuses.
The state does maintain a few websites for external consumption, including the Korean Central News Agency, a news and propaganda site overseen by Pyongyang but hosted in Japan. There's also the regime's official website, a monument to early '90s web design hosted on a server in Spain. North Korea finally received the rights to the URL suffix .kp in 2007 after years of lobbying, but so far, has only registered a handful of sites. Strangely, the .kp domain is overseen by an organization headquartered in Germany.
Fiber-optic cables have reportedly been laid into North Korea from China, so someone in the country is getting broadband. This access is most likely limited to the Foreign Ministry, which is charged with monitoring the outside world, and Kim Jong Il's inner circle. The Dear Leader himself is reportedly an avid web surfer -- he once asked U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her email address -- and describes himself as an "Internet expert."
Thanks to Adrian Hong, director of the Pegasus Project, which promotes Internet freedom in closed societies.