North Korea is embracing technology it hates and now distributes official publications on the Internet. But there’s more. After long resisting the introduction of smart phones North Korea finally relented in 2013. That was when North Korea announced that it had designed and begun manufacturing a smart phone (using the Android operating system). Foreign experts believed this was another publicity stunt and that the phones are actually manufactured to order from one of the many Chinese firms that do this. That proved to be the case. The North Korean smart phones are modified to make it more difficult for users to do unauthorized things like make international calls or access the Internet outside North Korea. North Korea allowed these phones to freely download approved apps, videos and music. Recently North Korea announced that users could download a digital version of a boring state run publication; Rodong Sinmun. The only people who download it are government officials who believe it would be a mistake not to. After all the state monitors what is downloaded onto these smart phones.
Despite the high price of these North Korea smart phones (about $500) there are over 300,000 users, many of them members of the new “trader class” who have made a lot of money operating legal markets. There are believed to be over a million illegal cell phones, which can access the international Internet if near the Chinese border or a foreign wi-fi hotspot within North Korea. These hotspots are available in the North Korean capital. There, many embassies have taken to installing powerful wi-fi systems that can be easily used by nearby North Koreans. These wi-fi routers are set up so they do not need a password. Many embassies do this on purpose to allow news of the outside world to get into North Korea via an uncensored Internet link (usually via a satellite link).
The North Korean government has only recently allowed some access to the Internet. In early 2014 North Korea expanded Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of these users only have access to the North Korean Internet, which is called “Bright.” This consists of a few thousand websites, all hosted within North Korea and mostly containing educational or propaganda material plus government announcements of importance. The news sites on Bright give the government version of the news. Discussion is permitted, but constantly monitored for disloyalty. Bright is isolated from the international Internet and access to Internet sites outside North Korea is strictly monitored, as is email outside the country. Anyone who misuses either Bright or the international Internet access is severely punished. Nevertheless the North Korean government has tried to make their intranet more useful by posting information like train schedules, directories of government offices as well as commercial enterprises (like the growing number of restaurants).
Thus while Internet access is sought, it is also feared. This makes the free embassy wi-fi networks so dangerous. There have been several instances of wealthy North Koreans moving to neighborhoods with an embassy wi-fi network just so they, and their kids, could have access to the web outside of North Korea. In particular North Koreans want access to the growing number of Korean language websites, most of them in South Korea.
Meanwhile the situation is quite different down south. South Korea was an early pioneer in making Internet access, especially high-speed service, available inexpensively and on a wide scale. In 2000 some 40 percent of South Koreans had Internet access and ten years later that had risen to 81 percent. Thus by 2005 over 95 percent of South Korean mobile phones had Internet access and by 2006 over half of home Internet users had high-speed access. Now all South Korean Internet users have high speed access and the speeds are the highest in the world. Although an American firm (Apple) invented the modern smart phone in 2005, it was a South Korean firm (Samsung) that went on to become the world’s largest producer of smart phones.
North Koreans have noticed the abundance of Korean language Internet content down south. Those who can connect to get to these South Korean can use “grabber” apps (many of them available free) to download all the content on a website. This can then be passed around inside North Korea via a USB memory stick. The North Korean government does not like this sort of thing but so far has preferred to avoid international condemnation for cracking down on embassy Internet use.