FP Explainer

Can North Koreans Use the Internet?

Only a lucky few.

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.

There have been some reports in recent years of North Korea training hackers to wage cyberwar against the West, but these appear to have been somewhat overblown.

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.


FP Explainer

How Do We Know That China’s Economy Is Really Bigger Than Japan’s?

Because they said so.

The world economy reached a major milestone Monday when China officially became the world's second-largest economy, displacing Japan, which has held the title for more than four decades. The recognition of China's new status came after the Japanese government reported that, after a quarter of slow economic growth, the country's annual gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to be around $1.28 trillion, slightly below China's $1.33 trillion. Do all countries use the same method for estimating GDP?

They're supposed to. The System of National Accounts (SNA), a set of guidelines developed jointly by the United Nations, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the World Bank, specifies the methods by which countries measure the size of their economies.

There are two main methods for estimating GDP. One involves looking at production. This includes the value of the goods produced by all the firms in the country, the added value of government work projects, and -- particularly in developing countries -- the value of goods produced for personal consumption, like the crops grown by subsistence farmers. Not all wealth counts toward GDP. For instance, if you build a new house, that's considered value added to the economy.  If a pre-existing house increases in value, the owner may be better off, but the country's GDP is unaffected. Of course, companies often have a vested interest in exaggerating their profits, so reliable figures can sometimes be tough to calculate.

The other method of calculating GDP involves measuring total consumption of products by a country's population. Since it relies mostly on household surveys, this method also has flaws. People tend to underreport the amount they spend on alcohol and cigarettes, for instance. But hopefully, the two measures should come up with close to the same number and when the results from the two approaches are compiled, they should give you a pretty good idea of the size of a country's economy.

(Some dispute whether GDP is a useful indicator at all, given that currency fluctuations can make comparisons between countries unreliable. According to purchasing power parity numbers, which compare economies based on the absolute price of a basket of goods, China actually overtook Japan a decade ago.)

Most countries have a dedicated statistical service in charge of monitoring economic growth and calculating GDP (in the United States, it is the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the Department of Commerce). For many developing countries, however, the task of collecting all that data can be a daunting one, involving large amounts of unreported income, so groups like the IMF are often called in to assist.

The GDP numbers of European countries are subjected to outside scrutiny by the European Union's statistics branch, Eurostat, since GDP determines how much a country is expected to pay into the EU budget. Greece and Ireland were caught underestimating their debt-to-GDP ratios in a bid to minimize the severity of their debt crises earlier this year.

But for most countries, there's no international legal authority to ensure that statistical offices are following the SNA guidelines, and international economists largely have to rely on self-reported numbers. While no one's disputing China's new status, the country has often been suspected of cooking its books. Although China is not a member of the OECD, it does cooperate with the organization in producing statistics according to the SNA guidelines.

Those guidelines are updated every few years. The most recent edition, which was made in 2008 and has so far only been implemented by Australia, was revised so that a firm's investments in research and development are considered added value. This means that as the new standard is implemented worldwide over the next four years or so, many countries will see their GDP numbers increase by as much as 1 percent. That's one way to stimulate growth.

Thanks to Nadim Ahmad at the statistics directorate of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

China Photos/Getty Images