In 2014 North Korea allowed foreign visitors more access to the Internet via their cell phones in an attempt to attract more of them. That worked, but in unwanted ways. Now North Korea is warning visitors that showing certain data on their cell phones to North Koreans or sending photos of North Korea outside the country via cell phones is illegal. While tourists can buy a SIM card for their cell phone that will allow Internet access inside North Korea, regular users of that high-speed cell phone Internet service have recently found their Internet access being censored. This is all about striking a balance between greed and paranoia. Tourists are a major source of foreign cash for North Korea but restriction on them caused a 37 percent decline (to 3,851) in tourist visits to North Korea during 2014. While few in numbers the North Korean government gets a lot of foreign cash (about $2,000 per person) out of these visitors and foreign currency is one thing that is always in short supply. That’s especially true when you consider that the North Korean GDP is only about $35 billion. The tourists stopped coming because of bad behavior and greed on the part of North Korea. Despite saying they welcome foreign tourists, North Korea will occasionally kill or arrest one or add new fees and restrictions without warning.
The North Koreans had previously tried to put more restrictions on foreign diplomats and their perfectly legal (under international law) Internet use. In 2014 North Korea tried persuading foreign embassies to stop using powerful wi-fi systems in their embassy compounds. 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. 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 at the embassy). The North Korean government had only recently allowed some access to the Internet but has now banned its citizens from using these open wi-fi connections. Enforcement was a challenge because in early 2014 North Korea expanded Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of North Koreans 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 state approved educational or propaganda material plus government announcements of importance. The news sites on Bright give the government version only. Discussion boards on Bright are 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. This makes the free embassy wi-fi networks and tourist use of overseas Internet 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. Other North Koreans risk arrest by getting close to tourists with smart phones.