Interesting article on cellphone and ‘Internet’ usage in North Korea – yes, there are both cellphones (now up to a million 3G subscribers, if the numbers are to be believed) and ‘Internet’ users in the North, though access to the outside Internet is limited to a very select few. Instead, North Korea has established a nationwide (mostly Pyongyang, but some connections in outlying areas), domestic-only, intranet for universities, research centers, and a few private homes/apartments.

The article, from The Diplomat, a leading provider of news and commentary on the Asia-Pacific, attributes the North’s acceptance of information age technology to a desire to attract and please international investors. While the concerns of international investors may play a role, I hardly agree that this is the driving force. Rather, the North, like any other country or group of people, wants to use the technology to communicate and share information, though, in the North’s case, with a heavy dollop of state control (none of the cellphones on the domestic network can access numbers outside the country) and propaganda messages from state authorities (taking spam texts to a whole new level).

National security, unmentioned in the article, also plays a powerful role. For several years, the North has engaged in cyberattacks on the outside world, primarily South Korea (including shutting down the South’s agricultural cooperative – locking millions out of their bank accounts) and has recently signed a research agreement with Iran on sharing information technology and engineering skills. Interestingly, Iran is now believed to be working on a ‘domestic Internet’ similar to North Korea’s.

By establishing its own intranet, the North can develop commercial-use technology (i.e. selling technology for creating secure domestic networks to countries like Iran), it can practice the skills required for launching cyber-attacks, and it can reap the benefits of online communication while maintaining rigid control over information flow.

The danger for the North’s rulers comes in allowing people to communicate with one-another relatively unfettered by government control, since there’s no way the state can fully monitor a million cellphones and a nationwide intranet. Instead, it risks communication taking place outside of its monitoring and control – a key ingredient, along with outside information contradicting the regime’s official worldview penetrating the country, in establishing and maintaining viable opposition groups.

The North is therefore walking a fine line between harnessing information technology to achieve regime goals and allowing in the seeds that could grow into, for the first time, organized domestic opposition groups. Early research on the Arab Spring has shown that social media and information technology were key not only for allowing outside information to freely penetrate previously controlled media environments, but more importantly, for allowing people to discover, connect with, and plan meetings/demonstrations with like-minded anti-regime elements.

While this is highly unlikely in the North, the very possibility is both new and ripe for exploitation by outside powers. Stay tuned.

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