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The Peninsula

Is Free Wi-Fi All the North Korean People Really Need?

Published September 25, 2014
Category: North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

From the Hack North Korea contest to smuggling in USBs and launching balloons over the DMZ, there have been many ways people have tried to get outside information to the North Korean people. Recently, an effective strategy was simply to have a powerful wireless Internet signal that anyone can access. This move, made by embassies and foreign NGOs, possibly even changed the real estate market in Pyongyang as some elite citizens apparently tried to move to residences closer to the free Wi-Fi signals coming from the embassies and foreign organization buildings. While North Korea has taken steps to discourage the practice and limit access to embassy and NGO Wi-Fi signals, the positive sign is that the North Korean people are still trying to find ways to get more information, and in turn, learn about the outside world. It will still be extremely difficult for outside information to bring down the North Korean regime, but providing access to uncensored outside information can help the North Korean people survive and be willing to try a future on the Korean peninsula without the Kim regime when the time comes.

In response the appearance of Wi-Fi networks, North Korea’s State Radio Regulatory Department recently sent a notice to embassies and foreign organizations telling them that they now must consult the department and possibly get a license in order to use a wireless network in North Korea. This seemingly ties into the story about people in Pyongyang trying to move closer to these foreign buildings because of the Wi-Fi access. These moves suggest that unfiltered access to outside information, even for the elites in Pyongyang, makes the North Korean regime very uncomfortable.

In addition to trying to limit the Wi-Fi coming from foreign organizations and embassies, the North Korean leadership also appears to be cracking down on other ways its citizens try to access the Internet and get information. Reuters reported that North Korea has made the SIM cards for mobile phones used by tourists active only during the time they are in North Korea; the concern appeared to be that SIM cards were being left behind for local North Koreans to connect to the outside Internet via the separate network in North Korea for foreigners. Radio Free Asia had a story earlier this year that the North Korean government began ordering its trade officials abroad to stop using the Internet and sending emails to friends and associates back in North Korea.

The North Korean leadership has also been vocal with its displeasure of balloon launches from South Korea, threatening to attack the South Korean citizens dispatching the balloons. The balloons carry leaflets criticizing the Kim family and often include money and other supplies for the North Korean people that find the balloons. Reportedly, North Korea has also updated its criminal code, revising punishments and re-codifying offenses, many that relate to accessing outside information from South Korea or foreign contacts.

Lastly, North Korea might be planning to demolish structures in Ryanggang Province close to the border of with China; the stated reason is to build a new road, but skeptics think North Korea might be trying to better secure the border and prevent “defections, smuggling, and a growing influx of information from the outside world.” On top of all of that, the North Korean government is very good at using information technology to actually limit the flow of information and control its own society.

A recent piece by Choson Exchange’s Geoffrey See for The Guardian illustrates the impact of North Korea’s control of the Internet at the personal level. Choson Exchange organized a workshop for “North Korean researchers and businesspeople” which “focused on helping build an entrepreneurial culture and a supportive environment for startups in North Korea.” As became clear from a pitch by some of the North Koreans for an optical character recognition app, connectivity and access to the Internet is a huge roadblock toward this goal. One can sense the disappointment the small group of North Koreans must have felt when they pitched their idea to a workshop leader, who in turn showed them similar app that had already been on the market for one year and had better quality. Choson Exchange is doing the hard work of building connections and teaching business skills to the North Koreans; unfortunately for the North Korean people, their government is holding them back by withholding access to the Internet and outside information.

It will be interesting to see how this attention on foreign organizations’ use of the Internet and the efforts to stop the other ways North Korean citizens access information will affect attempts to get the Internet elsewhere in North Korea. South Korean companies are requesting Internet capabilities in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The Park Geun-hye administration has also focused on Internet access in its negotiations with North Korea to help entice foreign companies to invest in the zone. North and South Korea apparently agreed to have the Internet in Kaesong; however, it appears that stalling and disputes by North Korea have prevented the implementation of the agreement. If the North Korean government is concerned about the embassies and NGOs blasting out free Wi-Fi, one could see a similar concern arising from the North Korean leadership that South Korean companies in Kaesong would undertake similar actions with broadband wireless access.

The North Korean regime wants to “reap the positive benefits of the technology while limiting the ideological pollution associated with the use of cell phones, the intranet, and the Internet.” These reports and actions suggest that while Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership talk a lot about the need for science and technology to help North Korea develop, they really don’t want the outside information that would truly help its society and bring about the economic change they are hoping for. If North Korea is cracking down on something, it is most likely working; the U.S. and other countries should be encouraged by this news to continue to fund and support programs and policies that provide more access to outside information to North Koreans. Moreover, now these countries should realize that one more small option is just to try to get wireless Internet access into country and then let the citizens of North Korea connect to it.

Pumping information and access to the Internet into North Korea should be more of a priority for the U.S. and other countries in their policies toward North Korea. Information and communication technology gives North Koreans the ability to compare actual prices of goods, work with others, and connect with family and friends inside and outside of North Korea. This information also lets the North Koreans see the contradictory nature of their government, especially how many of those contradictions are detrimental to the North Korean people themselves. The call for more science and technology so far has been one of these contridictions. This knowledge is needed for the North Koreans to build themselves a better society, and be more willing and able to work with the outside world, including interacting and eventually unifying with South Korea.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from comradeanatolii’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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