While modern society has known North Korea for its isolationist policies, the so-called hermit kingdom is not completely cut off from the rest of the world. Perhaps still unbeknownst to some, the upper half of the Korean Peninsula does have internet — albeit only accessed by a few and one that looks much smaller from the World Wide Web we virtually live in.
What North Korean internet looks like: To understand just how much North Koreans can possibly know about the world through a computer, it is important to distinguish the two online connections available to them. Kwangmyong — which translates to “bright star” — is the country’s officially sanctioned intranet. An intranet is a private network that only users within an organization can access. As this is the case, data is carefully controlled.
In 2015, Vox reported that Kwangmyong looked like the internet in 1994, running only basic email and browser tools that are restricted to pre-selected “sites” ripped and censored from the actual internet. The following year, the BBC described North Korean websites as “quite unsophisticated” and “can be painfully slow to load.”
The real internet is also available in North Korea, but primarily only to its elite citizens. These are reportedly families with direct ties to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Unsurprisingly, the number of North Korea’s internet users can only be estimated. Some cap the number at a few thousand if non-elites who require the internet for their jobs are to be counted.
What they use it for: The elites able to get their hands on the real internet have unrestricted access, according to a recent report by the People for Successful Corean Reunification (Pscore), a South Korean non-government organization. Meanwhile, the others with internet access — government officials, researchers, technical specialists, IT students and media professionals involved in propaganda work — are reportedly confined to a version with heavy surveillance.
Government-trained hackers belong to those specialists with restricted internet access. For years, countless reports have traced back global cyberattacks to the regime. Last year, they managed to steal virtual assets worth up to $1 billion, according to the United Nations. And just last month, they were suspected of stealing at least $35 million from Atomic Wallet, a popular cryptocurrency service.
How they gain access: Non-elites who require the internet for work or important affairs undergo an approval process, which reportedly takes several days. Researcher and defector Kim Suk-han — not their real name — said those approved are then manually surveilled.
“A librarian sits between two internet users and continuously monitors what people on both sides are searching up,” Kim told Pscore researchers, according to Wired. “Every five minutes, the screen freezes automatically, and the librarian must do a fingerprint authentication to allow further internet use.”
Those approved can only use the internet for an hour and any extension will require another approval. A security officer is also stationed nearby.
The bigger picture: As of April 2023, North Korea has the world’s lowest internet penetration rate at 99.9%, as per Statista. Amid growing tensions with the U.S., its censorship policy is only expected to get more draconian. But while it restricts ordinary citizens from seeing the wonders of the web, its handful of “influencers” — believed to be government-sanctioned propagandists — continue to share just how good life in North Korea is with the rest of the world.
Last year, a woman who called herself YuMi debuted on YouTube and began amassing thousands of subscribers for sharing glimpses of everyday life in Pyongyang, from exercising in a well-equipped indoor gym to visiting a lively amusement park. An 11-year-old girl named Song A also launched herself onto the platform, and once even flaunted her ownership of a “Harry Potter” book.
Park Seong-cheol, a researcher at the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, believes the videos are not 100% false, but misleading. “North Korea is striving to emphasize that Pyongyang is an ‘ordinary city,’” Park told CNN.
As of this writing, their YouTube channels are nowhere to be found. But clips of their videos have been been featured
by other channels, including South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.