Information Warfare: Why China Envies North Korea

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February 27, 2014: North Korea is increasing 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. This local Internet is called “Bright” and 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. Thus while Internet access is sought, it is also feared.

For the last decade North Korea has been seeking out more people with a talent for using the Internet, primarily for espionage and cyber (Internet based) combat. For over two decades North Korea has been training a small number of people (a few hundred a year) as network engineers and hackers. Once the Internet became a big deal in the late 1990s North Korea began training more people. At that point more and more of the elite families (a few hundred thousand people) began acquiring personal computers. The youngsters in those families, like kids everywhere, took to this new technology. The current (since 2011) North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is only 31 years old and grew up during all this and is a big fan of PCs and all manner of tech. He is mainly responsible for the increased access to the Internet for more North Koreans.

Kim Jong Uns father, who ran the country from 1994 to 2011 was also a tech fan and understood the usefulness of the Internet. But he also feared the Internet, as does his son. In 2010 the secret police were ordered to crack down on North Korean PC users (a few percent of the population, most belonging to the ruling Communist Party elite) who were still using copies of Windows XP (a pirated, Chinese language, version) operating system (OS). That crackdown was because the government had banned the use of Windows in 2009. In that year North Korea ordered everyone to switch to a new operating system, a version of Linux (Red Star) in the Korean language with a graphical interface that was very similar to Windows XP. The secret police wanted the Chinese language version of Windows gone in order to make it more difficult for North Koreans to communicate in Chinese, and to watch videos (XP was much better equipped for video than the new Linux OS). Red Star 2.0 appeared in 2011 with an interface similar to that found in Windows 7. The latest Red Star 3.0 appeared in the last year with an interface that looks like Mac OS 10.

North Korea is not the only country to favor Linux. Russia and China have also tried to get most of their users to switch to Linux. This is mainly for security reasons, but also because Linux is open source and government software engineers can more easily modify Linux for use by government employees. These mods improve security but also make it easier to monitor government workers.

At the end of 2010 the Russian government decreed that all government computers using Microsoft Windows must move to Linux within four years. There were several reasons for this switch. First, there is security. Windows based PCs are most frequently attacked by hackers, and protecting government networks from these attacks is very expensive. There are fewer attacks on Linux PCs because there are more than 50 times as many Windows PCs out there. Second, most of the Microsoft software used by Russian government PCs is stolen. Microsoft, and the United States government, is putting increasing pressure on the Russians to pay up. The Russians hope to avoid that by simply dropping the use of Windows and other Microsoft software. Software for Linux PCs is much cheaper, and often free. But, as with many past decrees, the Russian effort to convert to Linux largely failed. The main reason for that can be seen in what happened when China tried to convert.

For a decade now, China has been trying to get business and government users to adopt Unix (and later Linux) as their operating system. Yet most Chinese businesses, and many government departments, continue to use Microsoft operating systems. They do this because Microsoft Windows is widely pirated in China, and there's a large amount of pirated software you can use only on Windows systems. Another critical reason is that more games run on Windows machines, and that is important, even in China. Finally, the Chinese government is more resistant to complaints from Microsoft than Russia.

While the Chinese government continues to push the adoption of Linux, they are finding more success mandating that government servers use a Unix variant operating system, developed in China, called Kylin. Meanwhile, the government is increasingly eager to force all Chinese businesses to adopt a Chinese version of Linux or Unix for their desktop and laptop PCs. All this is nothing new, but there is a growing sense of urgency to it. Meanwhile the Chinese bureaucrats can only admire their North Korean counterparts who got their way when it came to using Linux.

 

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