According to the Japanese newspaper Choson Sinbo, a new online shopping mall in North Korea is enjoying popularity. “In Choson [North Korea] an e-commerce service system is being operated that handles food and all kinds of light industry goods,” the newspaper’s Pyongyang correspondent reported on April 2, 2015.
The newspaper explained that at the end of 2014, North Korea did a test-run of the system, and since the beginning of this year it has been in full operation. Since February of this year, they also started an e-commerce service that uses smart phones with communication functions.
Users access a computer network, and after joining the ‘Okryu’ e-commerce system, they can browse and purchase products.
In the Okryu e-commerce system, there are products of various name-brand commercial stores, restaurants and shops, including Changjon Haemaji Restaurant, Haedanghwa Restaurant, and Kumsong Foodstuff Factory.
On the homepage users are able to search for the products and when they decide to purchase a product they pay for it with an electronic card.
Currently, a variety of North Korean products are sold through Okryu, including various culinary dishes and food items, cosmetics and medical supplies, and footwear and bags. The Choson Sinbo said that “through Okryu [North Koreans] can even order naengmyon (cold buckwheat noodles) from the famous Okryukwan Restaurant.”
The newspaper went on to say, “This system has been a sensation among working-housewives, who can conveniently buy the products they need without going to the store […] There are also many users who choose products from Okryu’s homepage to send to friends or family during holidays and on birthdays.”
According to officials from the General People’s Service Bureau, “If the same types of products produced at several stores or factories are posted on the computer network, people will choose to purchase goods that are higher quality and cheaper in price. As a result, production units will begin competing in the areas of cost-saving and quality improvement.”
The newspaper added, “In the future the ‘Okryu’ homepage will not just contain the pictures of products, but it will also contain audio and video and become a fully multimedia website.” The e-commerce system is “also exploring a service that would make it possible for travelers to make reservations and search for information about accommodations at their respective destinations.”
UPDATE 21 (2014-11-8): Kenneth Bae has been released. According to the New York Times:
Mr. Bae and Mr. Miller’s plane touched down Saturday night, backlit by a nearly full moon dimmed by fast-moving clouds. Mr. Bae emerged first, and was swarmed by about a dozen relatives and friends. He paused for hugs then continued inside, out of sight of the row of news cameras lined up about 100 yards away. After a few minutes, Mr. Miller came out, greeted by a smaller welcoming committee.
At a news conference, Mr. Bae thanked the Obama administration, officials in North Korea and everyone who prayed for him and his family while he was detained. “I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and lifting me up at the same time that I was not forgetting the people of North Korea,” he said.
Speaking of his ordeal, he said, “I learned a lot. I grew a lot. I lost a lot of weight, in a good way.” Some people in the room chuckled. “I’m standing strong because of you,” he added.
UPDATE 30 (2014-8-13): Kenneth Bae has been sent back to prison. According to the Voice of America:
American missionary Kenneth Bae has been transferred to a North Korean labor camp from a hospital, despite U.S. concerns that his health is worsening.
In an email sent to VOA’s Korean Service, a U.S. State Department official said Bae was transferred to a labor camp immediately after being discharged from his hospital on July 30.
“We remain gravely concerned about Bae’s health, and we continue to urge [North Korean] authorities to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” the email said.
The State Department official also asked for Bae to be moved back to the hospital in the interim.
The statement comes after Bae received a visit at the labor camp this week by officials from the Swedish embassy, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea in the absence of diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang.*
The consular visit to Bae is the 12th such meeting since his arrest in November 2012 and the first in almost four months.
North Korea sentenced Bae to 15 years of hard labor in April 2013 for “hostile acts” against the regime. The Christian missionary was arrested while leading a group of tourists in the northern city of Rason.
Bae was sent to a hospital a year ago and stayed there through this past January. When his health worsened due to hard labor, he was hospitalized at the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital on March 29. The hospital was built in 1986 to treat foreigners in the country.
The Chosun Shinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper in Japan, interviewed him late last month. The 46-year-old told the newspaper he would be sent back to a labor camp in the near future despite a worsening heart condition.
*To the best of my knowledge, I am unaware of the Swedes visiting Bae in prison. My sources inform me that these meetings generally take place in one fo the hotels in Pyongyang.
UPDATE 29 (2014-7-31): Kenneth Bae has done an interview (in Korean) for the Choson Sinbo. The interview took place at the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in the Munsu-dong diplomatic compound.
UPDATE 28 (2014-2-9): For a second time, North Korea has rescinded an invitation for a special American envoy to visit Pyongyang.
In blocking the trip by Ambassador Robert King, Washington’s special envoy on North Korean human rights, North Korea again appeared to blame the tensions it said were caused by military exercises that the United States and South Korea are scheduled to begin this month.
Also, Mr. Bae has given another interview to the Chosn Sinbo. You can see it here:
Mr. Bae, speaking on Friday to a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan from his penal labor camp outside Pyongyang, said he had heard that Mr. King was to visit North Korea as early as this week to discuss his fate.
He told the newspaper, Choson Sinbo, that Pyongyang had extended an invitation to Mr. King. North Korea abruptly canceled a similar invitation for Mr. King in August, citing the military exercises as its reason.
The exercises are “transparent, regularly scheduled and defense-oriented,” Ms. Psaki said. “These exercises are in no way linked to Mr. Bae’s case. We again call on the D.P.R.K. to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release as a humanitarian gesture so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care.”
She said Washington maintained its longstanding offer to send Mr. King to North Korea. Separately, under a request from Mr. Bae’s family, the Rev. Jesse Jackson offered to travel to Pyongyang on a humanitarian mission to help win Mr. Bae’s release, she said.
A resident of Washington State, Mr. Bae was arrested after he entered North Korea through the northeastern city of Rason with a group of visitors in November 2012. Using a tourism business as a cover, he was trying to build a covert proselytizing operation in Rason, according to a videotaped sermon he gave at a St. Louis church in 2011.
Mr. Bae was convicted of plotting to “destroy our system through religious activities against our republic,” according to North Korea’s authoritarian government, which has been in a suspended state of war with the United States for more than 60 years.
He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Mr. Bae, who had been convalescing in a Pyongyang hospital since the summer with various health problems, was transferred back to the penal work farm about three weeks ago, according to his family and Choson Sinbo.
UPDATE 27 (2014-1-20): Kenneth Bae has been brought out to make a public plea for help. According to the Associated Press:
Kenneth Bae, made the comments at what he called a press conference held at his own request. He was under guard during the appearance. It is not unusual for prisoners in North Korea to say after their release that they spoke in similar situations under duress.
Wearing a gray cap and inmate’s uniform with the number 103 on his chest, Bae spoke in Korean during the brief appearance, which was attended by The Associated Press and a few other foreign media in Pyongyang.
Bae, the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years, expressed hope that the U.S. government will do its best to win his release. He said he had not been treated badly in confinement.
“I believe that my problem can be solved by close cooperation and agreement between the American government and the government of this country,” he said.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group and accused of crimes against the state before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health.
He made an apology Monday and said he had committed anti-government acts.
Bae said a comment last month by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had made his situation more difficult.
“The vice president of United States said that I was detained here without any reason,” Bae said. “And even my younger sister recently told the press that I had not committed any crime and I know that the media reported it.
“I think these comments infuriated the people here enormously. And for this reason, I am in a difficult situation now. As a result, although I was in medical treatment in the hospital for five months until now, it seems I should return to prison. And moreover there is greater difficulty in discussions about my amnesty.”
“We shouldn’t take Kenneth Bae’s comments merely as his own,” said Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “The reason why North Korea had Kenneth Bae make this statement … is that they want Washington to reach out to them.”
“Bae’s comments are an appeal to Washington to actively persuade Pyongyang to release him,” Kim said.
Pyongyang, January 20 (KCNA) — An American criminal, Kenneth Bae, was interviewed by local and foreign reporters at the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital Monday at his request.
He said he called the press conference to clarify some facts.
Over the past 15 months he, through meeting with officials of the Swedish embassy and calls and correspondence with his family, he correctly informed the U.S. government and his family of his criminal acts and humanitarian measures taken by the DPRK government in his behalf, he said, adding:
But some media are spreading misinformation about me and launching smear campaign against the DPRK, driving me into a difficult situation.
For example, the U.S. vice-president, at a press conference over the release of another U.S. citizen, Mr. Newman, in December last year, claimed that I have been detained here for no reason.
Some time ago even my sister reportedly told reporters that I am not guilty. I think such facts enraged people here.
This is why I am in a puzzle.
Over the past five months I have been hospitalized, but now I am afraid I may be sent back to the labor camp. Worse still, I am afraid the pardon for me becomes more difficult.
To cite another example, I was told that some media reports alleged that the DPRK is a “human rights violator”, its human rights records are not good and that I have been treated unfairly.
What I would like to clarify here now is that there has been no human rights abuse and no unfair, severe act for me.
The DPRK government has done every possible thing for me from the humanitarian point of view. It allowed me to contact with the Swedish embassy and have correspondence and calls with my family. It also gave me an opportunity to meet my mother here and offered me a medical service at the hospital when my disease got worse.
I, availing myself of this opportunity, call on the U.S. government, media and my family to stop link any smear campaign against the DPRK and false materials with me, making my situation worse.
I hope that I will be pardoned by the DPRK and go back to my family. I request the U.S. government, media and my family to pay deep concern and make all efforts to this end.
Bae gave answers to questions raised by reporters.
Kenneth Bae marked a dubious anniversary over the weekend: it has now been one year since the U.S. citizen and Christian missionary was arrested and detained in North Korea.
That makes Mr. Bae the first known U.S. citizen to be detained longer than a year since the Korean War, according to the National Committee on North Korea, which has tracked the fates of this small circle of detainees.
It also raises questions about why Mr. Bae remains inside the country, much longer than Pyongyang tends to hold its U.S. prisoners. (Even the crew of the USS Pueblo, the U.S. Navy vessel captured by the North in 1968, was released after about 11 months.
The mother of Kenneth Bae, the U.S. citizen being detained in North Korea, finished a five-day visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday, but came away with little clarity on when her son might be freed.
In a statement released by the family, Myunghee Bae said that she was able to visit Mr. Bae three times during her stay, and that her son’s health had improved.
But she said the visit also made her “more anxious than ever to bring him home,” pleading with the U.S. authorities to “do everything in their power” to get her son out of North Korea.
While she was careful to thank the North Korean authorities for “generously” allowing her to visit, Mrs. Bae said “it broke my heart to leave him behind,” adding that “the pain and anxiety continue to carve a deep scar on all of our hearts.”
North Korea watchers and those in the diplomatic community have struggled to explain the North’s apparent unwillingness to release Mr. Bae, who has already been detained in North Korea longer than any U.S. citizen in recent memory.
North Korea gave an official reason for the sudden Aug. 30 cancellation of a planned by visit by US State Department special envoy for North Korean human rights Robert King, saying the decision was made because the US “sent out B-52 strategic bombers on the Korean Peninsula.”
The move is being read as a sign of displeasure with Washington refusing to accept Pyongyang’s offer of direct dialogue and demanding “good faith” steps on denuclearization.
The Korean Central News Agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson denouncing the US’s actions in an Aug. 31 talk with the press.
“We had planned to accept the special envoy visit by the US from a humanitarian standpoint and hold serious discussions here on the American currently undergoing reeducation,” the spokesperson reportedly said, referring to US citizen Kenneth Bae, who is currently serving time at a North Korean reeducation camp.
“The US has continued sticking its B-52H strategic bombing in the skies over the Choson [Korean] Peninsula for nuclear bombing drills [during South Korea-US joint military exercises]. By doing this, they instantaneously destroyed a long-awaited climate in favor of humanitarian dialogue,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.
But experts said that the B-52 was likely to have been only a pretext for the discussion, and that the real aim was to deliver a message of displeasure – or warning – after the US failed to respond in “good faith” to Pyongyang’s dialogue overtures.
UPDATE 22 (2013-8-29): According to the Hankyoreh:
A US special envoy on North Korean human rights issues will visit Pyongyang on Aug. 30 to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American currently imprisoned in the country.
The visit by Robert King is the first official trip to North Korea by a senior US official since Kim Jong-un took power, and could mark a turning point in improving North Korea-US relations.
On Aug. 27, the US State Department issued a short, three-sentence press release about the visit but did not hold separate briefing on the issue. The release said that King would “request the DPRK [North Korea] pardon Mr. Bae and grant him special amnesty on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family and seek medical treatment.”
King, who is currently in Japan after visiting China and South Korea, plans to board a military aircraft at a base near Tokyo for a two-day visit to Pyongyang. He is expected to return with Bae.
A senior U.S. envoy will travel to North Korea this week to seek the release of an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the authoritarian country, the State Department said Tuesday.
The visit by Bob King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, will be the first public trip to North Korea by an administration official in more than two years and could provide an opening for an improvement in relations severely strained by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said King will request a pardon and amnesty for 45-year-old Kenneth Bae on humanitarian grounds. Bae, a tour operator and Christian missionary, was arrested in November and accused of committing “hostile acts” against North Korea. He suffers multiple health problems and was recently hospitalized.
King is traveling at the invitation of the North Korean government. He will fly to Pyongyang on Friday from Tokyo on a U.S. military plane, and fly out on Saturday.
“We remain deeply concerned about the health and welfare of Kenneth Bae, the American citizen currently detained in North Korea,” the White House said in a statement. “We urge the government of North Korea to grant special clemency to Mr. Bae immediately and allow him to return home with Ambassador King.”
When King last visited North Korea in May 2011 to assess the impoverished North’s food situation, he came home with Eddie Jun, the last American to be held then freed by Pyongyang. Jun, a Korean-American from California, was arrested for alleged unauthorized missionary work during several business trips to the country. He was released on humanitarian grounds.
Bae’s sister revealed earlier this month that he was moved from a labor camp to a hospital after losing more than 50 pounds. Terri Chung, of Edmonds, near Seattle, says her brother, a father-of-three, suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain. He was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and sister in 1985. For the past seven years Bae has been living in China, Chung says.
According to U.S. officials, Washington first made its offer to send King to North Korea several weeks ago, but Pyongyang only recently took them up on the offer. Pyongyang has yet to declare it will release Bae.
UPDATE 20 (2013-8-11): Kenneth Bae transferred to hospital. According to the Telegraph:
Bae’s sister Terri Chung said that her brother had until recently been held at a prison for foreigners and put to work ploughing and planting fields.
However, he is suffering from a range of health problems including an enlarged heart and chronic diabetes as well as back and leg pain, necessitating his transfer to a state hospital, she said.
Chung said she learned of her brother’s transfer from the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who visited Bae on Friday. The ambassador, who has met with Bae a handful of times since his detention, has been his only foreign visitor, Chung said.
UPDATE 19 (2013-7-19): Kenneth Bae is writing letters home. According to the New York Times:
The family of Kenneth Bae, the American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, received letters from him in the mail for the first time this past week, telling them that his health is worse and asking them to press the United States government to help secure his release, Mr. Bae’s sister said Friday.
North Korea experts said the message of the handwritten letters — and their method of delivery, which could not have happened without North Korea’s approval — suggested that the authorities there were open to the idea of negotiations on Mr. Bae. That had seemed remote three months ago when he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” against the government.
North Korea said Mr. Bae, 44, was a Christian missionary who had sought to build a clandestine proselytizing base in the country, where the Communist government regards missionary work as sedition.
The possible opening in Mr. Bae’s case came against a backdrop of other indications that North Korea, despite its harsh public language toward the United States, is pursuing multiple ways of pushing for direct contact after months of threats and new weapons tests. So far, the Obama administration has resisted the overtures.
Mr. Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said in a phone interview from her home in Edmonds, Wash., that Mr. Bae had been able to communicate a few times during his imprisonment, which began with his arrest in November, though those contacts were through intermediaries acting on behalf of Sweden’s ambassador in North Korea, who monitors American interests. Then weeks went by with no further word.
“This past week, we were surprised to receive a packet of letters from Kenneth through the U.S. Postal Service, bearing a Pyongyang postmark,” she said. “The packet contained four letters, dated June 13th, addressed to his wife, his mom, me and his supporters.”
She said that “all the letters contained the same message — Kenneth’s health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home.”
Ms. Chung said her brother suffered from diabetes, an enlarged heart and back problems.
She declined to share the letters but said the family had conveyed their contents to officials at the State Department. Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman in Washington, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Mr. Bae was sentenced at a time of particularly high tensions between the United States and North Korea over the North’s nuclear weapons program under its young new leader, Kim Jong-un, further complicating any possible diplomatic efforts aimed at securing Mr. Bae’s release.
North Korea said that Mr. Bae had been working as a Christian missionary with the aim of overthrowing the North Korean government. In a video of an hourlong talk, given to a Korean church in the United States in 2011 and posted online, Mr. Bae detailed his activities inside North Korea.
The postmark on Mr. Bae’s mailed letters to his family suggested they were written at about the same time that the North Korean authorities had permitted a pro-North Korea group based in Tokyo, Choson Sinbo, to interview him in prison. A videotape of that interview, broadcast July 3 on CNN, showed Mr. Bae looking distressed and thin, his head shaved, dressed in a stained blue jumpsuit with his prison number, 103. His message was similar to those in the letters: an appeal for the United States government to help secure his release.
“Although my health is not good, I am being patient and coping well,” Mr. Bae said in that interview. “And I hope that with the help of the North Korean government and the United States, I will be released soon.”
In what appeared to be an effort to show the outside world that the North Korean penal authorities had been treating him well, Mr. Bae was seen seated in a comfortable cell with a radiator and a window. The video also zoomed in on what was described as his daily work schedule, posted in Korean and English, showing he was given three meals and had four rest breaks in between field labor. No other inmates were seen at the prison, and its precise location was unclear.
Diplomats who have dealt with North Korea said the unspoken message in both the video and the letters was that the North Korean authorities wanted to see more publicity about Mr. Bae as part of their broader effort to seek direct contact with the United States government.
UPDATE 18 (2013-7-3): The DPRK has released video footage of Kenneth Bae and an interview. See CNN and NK News.
UPDATE 18 (2013-5-15): Kenneth Bae has been transferred to a prison. According to KCNA:
American Citizen Begins His Life at “Special Prison”
Pyongyang, May 15 (KCNA) — Pae Jun Ho, an American citizen, started his life at a “special prison” on Tuesday.
Pae was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for his anti-DPRK crime, an attempt to topple the DPRK, at the trial held on April 30, according to Section 60 (an attempt at state subversion) of the DPRK Criminal Law.
DPRK Supreme Court Spokesman Exposes Crimes of American Pae Jun Ho
Pyongyang, May 9 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Supreme Court of the DPRK gave the following answer to a question raised by KCNA Thursday as regards the assertion made by the U.S. government and media about the alleged unreasonable legal action taken against American Pae Jun Ho who committed crimes against the DPRK, claiming that he was not tried in a transparent manner and it was trying to use this issue as a political bargaining chip:
Pae set up plot-breeding bases in different places of China for the purpose of toppling the DPRK government from 2006 to October 2012 out of distrust and enmity toward the DPRK. He committed such hostile acts as egging citizens of the DPRK overseas and foreigners on to perpetrate hostile acts to bring down its government while conducting a malignant smear campaign against it. He was caught red handed and prosecuted while entering Rason City of the DPRK, bringing with him anti-DPRK literature on Nov. 3 last year.
Pae visited different churches of the U.S. and south Korea to preach the necessity and urgency to bring down the DPRK government. He was dispatched to China as a missionary of the Youth With A Mission in April, 2006. After setting up plot-breeding bases disguised with diverse signboards in different parts of China for the past six years, avoiding the eyes of its security organs, he brought together more than 1 500 citizens of the DPRK, China and foreigners before whom he gave anti-DPRK lectures. He invited even south Korean pastors hell-bent on the moves to escalate confrontation with compatriots to give lectures for malignantly slandering the Juche idea of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the socialist system in the DPRK and instigating them to the acts to bring down its government.
He planned the so-called “Jericho operation” to bring down the DPRK through his anti-DPRK religious activities from December 2010 to March 2012. In order to carry out the plan he infiltrated at least 250 students who had been educated at the plot-breeding bases operated by him into Rason City under the guise of tourists. He failed to set up an anti-DPRK base at Rajin Hotel in Rason City.
He collected and produced several anti-DPRK videos to make the false propaganda sound plausible and showed them many people in a bid to egg them onto activities to bring down the DPRK government. He bribed Song Je Suk and other citizens of the DPRK on foreign tours in an effort to get them involved in activities to topple the DPRK government. He dared commit such hideous crime as hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK.
The DPRK Supreme Court held a trial of Pae at its court behind closed doors on Apr. 30, 2013 at his request in accordance with Section 270 of the DPRK Criminal Procedure Law.
As he refused pleading, the court did not allow the presence of a counsel, pursuant to Section 275 of the above-said law.
In the course of hearing Pae admitted all his crimes and they were clearly proved in an objective manner by evidence and testimonies made by witnesses.
The court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in consideration of candid confession of his crimes though they are liable to face death penalty or life imprisonment for an attempt at state subversion according to Section 60 of the DPRK Criminal Code.
Pae will be fully guaranteed the right as a prisoner according to the DPRK law while in jail.
Pyongyang, May 2 (KCNA) — A trial of Pae Jun Ho, an American citizen, took place held at the Supreme Court of the DPRK on April 30. He was arrested while committing hostile acts against the DPRK after entering Rason City as a tourist on Nov. 3 last year.
The Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years of compulsory labor for this crime.
Pyongyang, April 27 (KCNA) — The preliminary inquiry into crimes committed by American citizen Pae Jun Ho closed. He entered Rason City of the DPRK on Nov. 3 last year for the purpose of tour and was arrested for committing crimes against the DPRK.
In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it. His crimes were proved by evidence.
He will soon be taken to the Supreme Court of the DPRK to face judgment.
UPDATE 11 (2013-1-28): In the Korea Herald, Namkung refers to serious charges leveled against Mr. Bae:
“My understanding is that he has been accused of serious crimes including plotting to overthrow the regime and assassinating the leadership,” Namkung said in an email interview.
“Richardson’s hope was to see the detainee, Kenneth Bae, and if possible, bring him home. However, North Korea was not cooperative in this regard.”
For weeks, North Korea has refused to allow the United States government to contact a Korean-American man detained in the communist nation, the State Department said Friday.
“As we said about three or four weeks ago, we had contact through our Swedish protecting power. We have not been able to have another contact since then. We continue to ask,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing.
She was responding to a question on Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator who was arrested by North Korea’s security authorities in early November.
UPDATE 9 (2013-1-11):Retuers reports that Richardson delivered a letter for Bae:
Richardson was unable meet with Korean-American Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tourist who was detained in North Korea late last year, but he said he was able to give a letter from Bae’s son to authorities.
“I delivered the letter to North Korean officials,” Richardson told Reuters on Friday. “They said they would provide that to him.”
UPDATE 8 (2013-1-10): KCNA reports that the Richardson delegation has left the DPRK:
Delegation of Google Inc. of U.S. Flies Back
Pyongyang, January 10 (KCNA) — The delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, left here on Thursday.
No reports of any meetings were reported while the delegation visited the DPRK.
The delegation did hold a press conference at Beijing Capital Airport. Bloomberg reports:
“As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world,” Schmidt told reporters today at the Beijing airport after the visit to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. “The government has to do something — they have to make it possible for people to use the Internet, which the government in North Korea has not yet done. It is time now for them to start or they will remain behind.”
Schmidt said that North Korea’s existing mobile-phone network, operated in a joint venture with Orascom Telecom Media & Technology Holding SAE, could be retooled to offer Internet access. There are about 1 million phones on the network, Schmidt said.
“It would be very easy for them to turn that on,” Schmidt said.
Mr. Richardson said he told North Korea’s top vice minister for nuclear negotiations that Pyongyang should temper its nuclear-development efforts. “We need dialogue on the peninsula, not confrontation,” he told reporters. He also said he pushed Pyongyang for a moratorium on ballistic-missile tests, and that officials responded by insisting that the recent satellite launch was for peaceful reasons.
“I must say I personally disagree,” he said.
Mr. Richardson also said he pressed North Korean officials about an American who is being detained there, and was encouraged by their statements that judicial proceedings will begin soon and that the detainee’s health is good. It wasn’t clear whether Mr. Richardson’s delegation met with the detainee, 44-year-old Kenneth Bae, held since late last year on unspecified charges.
UPDATE 7 (2013-1-9): The Richardson delegation visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. There are no photos or videos of this trip. No doubt Gov. Richardson would be nervous about pictures of him paying homage to the memories of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
UPDATE 6 (2013-1-9): KCNA reports that the Richardson delegation is touring Pyongyang:
Delegation of Google Inc. of U.S. Tours Pyongyang
Pyongyang, January 9 (KCNA) — A delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, Wednesday visited the Grand People’s Study House here.
The guests went round several reading rooms and lecture rooms, being briefed on the fact that people and students acquire knowledge about modern science and technology and improve their cultural attainments at the study house.
They also visited the E-library of Kim Il Sung University, Korean Computer Center, etc.
The visit to Kim Il-sung University was featured on the 1-8 evening news. See it here.
The visit to the Grand Peoples Study house was featured on the 1-9 evening news. See it here.
Schmidt and Cohen chatted with students working on HP desktop computers at an “e-library” at the university named after North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. One student showed Schmidt how he accesses reading materials from Cornell University online on a computer with a red tag denoting it as a gift from Kim Jong Il.
“He’s actually going to a Cornell site,” Schmidt told Richardson after peering at the URL.
Cohen asked a student how he searches for information online. The student clicked on Google — “That’s where I work!” Cohen said — and then asked to be able to type in his own search: “New York City.” Cohen clicked on a Wikipedia page for the city, pointing at a photo and telling the student, “That’s where I live.”
Kim Su Hyang, a librarian, said students at Kim Il Sung University have had Internet access since the laboratory opened in April 2010. School officials said the library is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, even when school is not in session, like Tuesday.
While university students at Kim Chaek University of Science and Technology and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology also have carefully monitored Internet access — and are under strict instructions to access only educational materials — most North Koreans have never surfed the Web.
Computers at Pyongyang’s main library at the Grand People’s Study house are linked to a domestic Intranet service that allows them to read state-run media online and access a trove of reading materials culled by North Korean officials. North Koreans with computers at home can also sign up for the Intranet service.
But access to the World Wide Web is extremely rare and often is limited to those with clearance to get on the Internet.
At Kim Chaek University, instructors and students wishing to use the Internet must register first for permission and submit an application with their requests for research online, Ryu Sun Ryol, head of the e-library, said.
But he said it is only a matter of time before Internet use becomes widespread.
“We will start having access to the Internet soon,” he said in an interview last month. He said North Korea is in the midst of a major push to expand computer use in every classroom and workplace.
UPDATE 5 (2013-1-7): Even though this delegation is run by Bill Richardson for “humanitarian” purposes, KCNA is emphasizing the business angle. Here is the KCNA report of the delegation’s arrival:
Delegation of Google Inc. of U.S. Arrives
Pyongyang, January 7 (KCNA) — A delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, arrived here on Monday by air.
Here is KCNA video that has been ripped and uploaded to You Tube:
UPDATE 4 (2012-1-5):Wired published a statement from Richardson’s office which details who is in the delegation:
Governor Bill Richardson will travel to North Korea next week on a private humanitarian mission. The delegation will consist of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Dr. KA Namkung, Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen; as well as some staff members.
Since no media is accompanying the delegation, Gov. Richardson will have a press availability at the Beijing Airport on Thursday, January 10th.
UPDATE 3 (2013-1-3): According to Reuters, the US Department of State has criticized the Richardson delegation to the DPRK. According to the article:
The State Department said on Thursday the time was not right for Google Inc Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and former diplomat Bill Richardson to visit North Korea, which drew international criticism for a rocket launch last month.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said Schmidt and Richardson would be traveling as private citizens, not representatives of the U.S. government.
“Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful,” Nuland told reporters, citing North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket in December. “They are well aware of our views.”
“We are obviously aware of the trip that has been announced,” [Nuland] said, later correcting herself to say that the department was aware of media reports about the trip.
“They are private citizens. They are traveling in an unofficial capacity,” she said. “They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. They are private citizens and they are making their own decisions.”
On Wednesday, Google did not respond directly to a question about whether Schmidt was going to North Korea, although a spokeswoman’s response suggested a visit would not be for company business.
UPDATE 2 (2013-1-2): According to the Associated Press, Bill Richardson is reportedly headed to the DPRK. Though the article does not mention it, he will likely be working for the release of Mr. Bae. The news of Mr. Richardson’s visit is overshadowed by his travel companion, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. According to the article:
Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea on a private, humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month, according to two people familiar with the group’s plans who asked not to be named because the visit had not been made public.
The trip would be the first by a top executive from U.S.-based Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider, to a country considered to have the most restrictive Internet policies on the planet.
UPDATE 1 (2012-12-21): The DPRK announces it has arrested another American. According to KCNA:
American Arrested in DPRK for Committing Crime
Pyongyang, December 21 (KCNA) — The Korean Central News Agency released the following report on Friday:
American citizen Pae Jun Ho who entered Rason City of the DPRK on Nov. 3 for the purpose of tour committed a crime against the DPRK. He was put into custody by a relevant institution.
In the process of investigation evidence proving that he committed a crime against the DPRK was revealed. He admitted his crime.
Consular officials of the Swedish embassy, which look after interests of the U.S. in the DPRK, visited him Friday.
Legal actions are being taken against Pae in line with the criminal procedure law of the DPRK.
Original Post (2012-12-13): The DPRK is allegedly holding another American citizen. According to the New York Times:
A 44-year-old American citizen has been held in North Korea for a month, a human rights activist in Seoul said Thursday, addressing unconfirmed reports that had circulated in the South Korean news media for several days.
The American, Kenneth Bae, runs a travel company that specializes in taking tourists and prospective investors to North Korea. He had visited the North several times without incident before being detained in early November, according to the activist, Do Hee-youn, who heads the Citizens’ Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees, based in Seoul. Mr. Do said he had learned of Mr. Bae’s detention through a mutual friend in China.
South Korean news reports on Thursday said that Mr. Bae, a naturalized United States citizen born in South Korea, was detained after escorting five European tourists into North Korea through the city of Rajin on Nov. 3. The Europeans were allowed to leave the country, the reports said. North Korea operates a free-trade zone in Rajin, which is near the Russian border, but it has had difficulty attracting foreign investors.
Mr. Do said he had few details about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Bae’s reported arrest. The South Korean daily newspaper Kookmin Ilbo cited an unnamed source as saying that Mr. Bae was detained after North Korean security officials found a computer hard disk in his possession that they believed contained delicate information about the country. Mr. Bae was later transferred to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, for further investigation, according to that report.
Mr. Do said that Mr. Bae was interested in helping orphans who beg for food in North Korean markets. “The most plausible scenario I can think of is that he took some pictures of the orphans, and the North Korean authorities considered that an act of anti-North Korean propaganda,” he said.
North Korea is promoting the development of its postal and communication sectors.
North Korea recently held the “National Communications Workers’ Rally” on September 16, 2013. The First Chairman of the National Defence Commission Kim Jong Un sent a letter addressed to the participants titled “Time for a New Shift in the Communications Industry.”
At the event, Deputy Premier Jon Sung Hun delivered a speech emphasizing that “(communications sector officials) must work with the mission and duty to raise the national communications business up to the state-of-the-art level.”
The dedication of technicians working at the mobile communication base station, research of scientists and technicians at the communications sector, and modernization of information and communications in Pyongyang were acclaimed for achievements.
In the North, letters and parcel delivery as well as land-based and mobile phones, and intranets are considered a part of the communications sector. The Ministry of Communications under the Cabinet oversees this entire industry.
During his life, former leader Kim Jong Il also showed great interest in the communications sector. At the national rally for communications workers on August 25, 1993, Kim sent a letter encouraging the participants: “Let’s push forward toward modernization of the communications sector.” In North Korea, this text is regarded as the bible of the communications industry.
North Korea has been holding the National Communications Workers’ Rally once every ten years, with the last event held in October 2003 at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Korean Workers’ Party, devoted the entirety of page four to introducing the achievements of the International Satellite Communication Bureau and the fiber-optic cable factories. It covered extensively the successes of the postal and communications industries.
The newspaper stated, “The workers and technicians of the communication sector successfully finished the fiber optic cable construction in the provincial, city, and district levels in a short period.” The news also boasted that “They realized the high-speed and large-capacity of communications based on state-of-the-art technology and high-tech facilities.”
In addition, Rodong Sinmun reported the advancement of the speed and accuracy of communications, high-speed data network and exchange capacity, making positive contribution in distance learning and remote medical system.
The news also acclaimed, “The fiber-optic cable communication and communication facilities and operation has reached the level of modernization,” and “Most of all, the high-tech mobile services is contributing greatly to ensuring the convenience of people’s daily lives.”
Recently, North Korean mobile communications has made great progress. Reportedly, North Korea has over 200 million subscribers (as of April 2013). About 1 in 12 North Koreans have mobile phones. The younger generation is also reported to be reading mobile news, multimedia message (MMS), and sending and receiving video calls via 3G.
Mobile phones in North Korea are spreading rapidly and mobile games are also growing in popularity.
The Korean Association of Cooks has opened “Korean Dishes”, an Internet homepage.
The homepage deals with common knowledge and theories on variety of dishes and how to cook them.
It also offers such data as origins and anecdotes about dishes and global trend in cooking development.
It has a distinctive catalogue for serving housewives’ convenience. When a visitor chooses any food material in the
catalogue, she can get detailed information about lists of dishes prepared with it and their cookery.
The homepage contains multimedia on national and foreign dishes. Through homepage visitors can exchange their knowledge and views with each other and acquire a wide-ranging cooking.
An official of the Korean Association of Cooks told KCNA that this homepage serves as a close companion for cooks and housewives.
Although the KCNA story does not mention the URL, it is nearly visible on the screen shot taken in the top left photo. I talked about it with Martyn Williams (check out his database of North Korean web pages here) and we agreed that it is http://www.cooks.org.kp/index.php. This web page, however, is not actually available on the “world wide web”. It appears to be available only to readers of the DPRK’s intranet, Kwangmyong, which is available through domestic computer terminals and I believe partially through the KoryoLink 3-G phone network.
Some other points of interest:
1. The screen shots indicate that that the North Korean intranet web pages are compatible with the Mozilla Firefox browser.
2. The North Korean intranet pages are prefixed with “http://www.” indicating that though they are not currently on the global Internet, it would be very simple to make them so. This means that the computer programmers in the DPRK are building the network with an infrastructure that would not preclude eventual unification with the global Internet.
Pictured above (Google Earth): Changwang street runs north from the Pyongyang Central Train Station to the Potonggang Gate–straight through the Workers’ Party Leadership Compound (AKA the “Forbidden City”)
As the use of multimedia devices continues to spread among wealthy kids from the Pyongyang elite keen to ride the ‘Korean Wave’ of South Korean cultural influences, it appears that ownership of an Apple i-Pad tablet computer has now also become one symbol of ‘cool.’
The most common and popular multimedia devices used by younger generations in Pyongyang are still MP4 players and DVD playback devices with USB compatibility, of course; however, on Changgwang St. in the very heart of Pyongyang a few people have recently been witnessed wielding the popular Apple machines.
“Notebook computers are pretty common in Pyongyang,” one Chinese businessman who visits Pyongyang 2 to 3 times a year told Daily NK on the 6th, “But i-Pads are now a symbol of wealth; someone in Pyongyang requested one from me for their child.”
“I also witnessed a person using an i-Pad on Changgwang Street and PSM officers did not stop this, while the user did not seem to care about getting in trouble,” the source went on, adding, “There are many foreigners in that area so they are probably trying to adopt a sophisticated image.”
One Orascom official also previously reported witnessing the use of an i-Pad in Pyongyang. However, it is not possible to use the product’s 3G cellular facility in the city as yet.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA) on the 8th, an official with the Egyptian company stated, “We are planning to develop a SIM card so that I-pads can be used in North Korea by the end of this year,” explaining “There is a 3G network for cell phones in North Korea, so as long as you insert a SIM card you’ll be able to use it.”
Naturally, the internet is not available to domestic users of phones in North Korea either, while the i-Pad is renowned worldwide for its lack of USB ports, too, much less a DVD drive, so while the elite may be obtaining the devices one way or another, only those lucky enough to live abroad can really use them.
iPods have been popular in the DPRK for some time. More than once have tourists been propositioned to give up their portable music devices.
Read the full story here:
Even i-Pads Are in Pyongyang Now Daily NK
Park Jun Hyeong
The Nautilus Institute has published a new paper by Alexandre Mansurov on the DPRK’s communication and technology sectors. The press release and a link to the paper are below:
The DPRK mobile communications industry has crossed the Rubicon, and the North Korean government can no longer roll it back without paying a severe political price. The most the authorities can do now is probably to manage its rapid expansion in such a way that will ensure that the interests of the political regime and state security are taken care of first.
While traditionally, the State Security Department monitored most communications on a daily basis, the implication of this explosion of mobile phone use is that communication in North Korea has transitioned from a panopticon of total control to a voluntary compliance system where the government makes an example of a select group to try and force the rest of the country to stay in line.
Alexandre Y. Mansourov, a Nautilus Institute Senior Associate, comprehensively examines information technology in North Korea. As of 2008 the regime launched a world-class 3G mobile communications service, which gained almost 700,000 users in less than three years of operation, revealing an insatiable demand for more robust and extensive telecommunications services among the North Korean general population.
About the Nautilus Institute: Since its founding in 1992, the Nautilus Institute (www.nautilus.org) has evolved into a thriving public policy think-tank and community resource. The Institute addresses a myriad of critical security and sustainability issues including the United States nuclear policy in Korea and energy, resource and environmental insecurity in Northeast Asia. Over the years, Nautilus has built a reputation for innovative research and analysis of critical global problems and translating ideas into practical solutions, often with high impact.
For more information, contact the Nautilus Institute at email@example.com or at 415 422 5523.
The curtain is rising on a bold experiment to engage North Korea’s academic community—and possibly shape the country’s future. On October 25, 2010, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST, opened its doors to 160 elite North Korean students. By improving North Korea’s technical prowess, PUST might nudge the country’s tattered manufacturing-based economy toward an information-based economy.
“Our purpose is the globalization of North Korea through PUST. In that way, their economy can gradually develop, which will make it easier for reunification later,” says Park Chan Mo, former president of the National Research Foundation of Korea and one of four founding committee chairs of PUST. More initiatives are in store after South-North relations improve, says Oh Hae Seok, Special Adviser on Information Technology (IT) to South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak. “The South is ready to assist the North by building an IT infrastructure and supporting IT education, as long as the North opens its door,” he says.
PUST will test North Korea’s appetite for engagement. Perhaps most discomfiting to the North is that the new university is led and bankrolled by devout Christians. The North Korean government espouses atheism and takes a dim view on South Korean evangelists, particularly for their role in an “underground railway” in northeastern China that steers defectors to safe havens. PUST leaders and professors, primarily ethnic Koreans, have promised not to proselytize.
PUST’s main mission therefore is to lead North Korea out of a scientific wilderness. The North is light-years behind industrialized nations in many areas of science and technology. It excels in a few spheres. For instance, North Korea is notorious for its skill at reverse-engineering long-range missiles and fashioning crude but workable plutonium devices. Less well known, the North has developed considerable expertise in information technology—and has staked its future on it. “North Korea has chosen IT as the core tool of its economic recovery,” says Park. But it has a poor grasp on how to translate knowledge into money. “Instead of just giving them fish, we will teach them how to catch fish,” Park says.
There are serious risks in giving North Korea a technical assist, according to PUST’s critics. Opinion in South Korea is split on PUST; many people have voiced concerns. The chief worry is that PUST students could feed information or lend newfound expertise to the North Korean military. To minimize these risks, PUST’s curricula have been vetted by government and academic nonproliferation experts.
To proponents, the new venture’s benefits far outweigh the risks. PUST has been promised academic freedom, the likes of which has been virtually unknown in North Korea, including campus-wide internet access. “We hope that PUST will open channels to the outside,” says Nakju Lett Doh, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Korea University in Seoul and member of PUST’s academic committee.
Few people of university age or younger can imagine a world without internet. But it’s rare a North Korean of any age has tasted this forbidden fruit. The government takes infinite care to shield innocent minds from corrosive facts about the Korean War, descriptions of life in modern South Korea, and western notions of freedom of expression, among other things. Instead, the Garden of Juche offers Guang Myung, or Bright Light: an Intranet not connected to the outside world.
When I visited Pyongyang on invitation from the DPRK Academy of Sciences in July 2004, my hosts gave me a tour of the Central Information Agency for Science and Technology’s computing center and showed me the Guang Myung home page, which reminded me of Yahoo. They claimed the system has tens of millions of records, including digital tomes on agriculture and construction as well as the complete writings of Kim Il Sung.
Since then, fiber optic cables have spread Guang Myung to the far corners of the nation. “The main purpose is to disseminate scientific and technological information,” says Lee Choon Geun, chief representative of the Korea-China Science & Technology Cooperation Center in Beijing. On a visit to Pyongyang a few years ago, Lee, an expert on North Korea’s scientific community, witnessed Guang Myung in action, including a live lecture broadcast over the Intranet. At the time, he says, Kim Chaek University of Technology had around 500 Pentium 4’s and 5’s connected to the system. He estimates that nationwide, tens of thousands of computers of all types are now linked in. However, it’s not clear how effective Guang Myung is outside Pyongyang, where clunky routers funnel information to ancient machines—remember 386s and 486s? Another major woe is an unstable electricity supply that regularly fritzes electronics. Lee, who has visited North Korea 15 times, says that when he asks what scientists need most, they request laptops, whose power cord adaptors and batteries can better handle electrical fluctuations.
Indeed, it’s a formidable job to erect an IT infrastructure inside a cocoon. South Korea has lent a hand. With the government’s blessing, private organizations in the South have sent approximately 60,000 IT publications—periodicals and books—to North Korean universities, and IT professors from the South have visited the North for lecturing stints, says Oh. South Korean groups have also helped train North Korean computer scientists in Dandong, China, just across the border from North Korea. The training center had to close earlier this year due to budget cuts, says Lee.
The juche philosophy embraces self-reliant efforts to gather technical information from abroad. North Korean diplomats are one set of eyes and ears. They collect journal articles, textbooks and handbooks, surf the Web and ship any seemingly useful information to Pyongyang, where analysts evaluate it and censors clear it for posting. When sent via internet, information is routed primarily through Silibank in Shenyang in northeastern China. North Korea has also deployed abroad around 500 IT specialists in the European Union and dozens more to China—in Beijing, Dalian, Shanghai, and Shenyang—to acquire knowledge for the motherland. “Through them a lot of information goes to North Korea,” says Park.
Such activity may seem like a packrat cramming its nest with equal portions of usable materials and shiny baubles. But it has paid off in at least one area: software development. “They are developing their own algorithms,” says Doh, an expert on control system theory. Even though North Korea’s programmers are almost completely isolated from international peers, they lag only about 5 to 6 years behind the state of the art in South Korea, Doh says. “That’s not that bad.” The Korean Computing Center and Pyongyang Information Center together have around 450 specialists, and universities and academy institutes have another 1,000 more experts on computer science, says Lee. And all told there are about 1,200 specialized programmers.
The programmers have enjoyed modest commercial success. The state-owned SEK Studios in Pyongyang has done computer animation for films and cartoons for clients abroad. And software developers have produced, among other things, an award-winning computer version of the Asian board game Go. “Their software is strong,” says Park, a specialist on computer graphics and simulation. “They are very capable.”
But the resemblance to IT as we know it ends there. “In North Korea, IT is quite different from what most people think,” says Lee. Most computing efforts these days are focused on computerized numerical control, or CNC: the automation of machine tools to enable a small number of workers to produce standardized goods. “Their main focus is increasing domestic production capacity,” says Lee. North Korea’s CNC revolution is occurring two to three decades after South Korean industries adopted similar technologies. And North Korea is struggling to implement CNC largely because of its difficulties in generating sufficient energy needed to make steel—so its machinery production capacity is a fraction of what it used to be—and it lacks the means to produce sophisticated integrated circuit elements.
Antiquated technology may be the biggest handicap for North Korea’s computer jocks. North Korea “doesn’t have the capacity to make high technology,” says Kim Jong Seon, leader of the inter-Korean cooperation team at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Seoul. North Korea is thought to have a single clean room for making semiconductors at the 111 Factory in Pyongyang. Built in the 1980s—the Stone Age of this fast-paced field—the photomask production facility is capable of etching 3 micron wide lines in silicon chips. South Korean industry works in nanometer scales. The bottom line, says Kim, is that in high technology, “they have to import everything.”
That’s a challenge, because no country—China included—openly flouts UN sanctions on high-tech exports to North Korea. Any advanced computing equipment entering the country is presumably acquired through its illicit missile trade and disappears into the military complex. North Korea’s civilian computer scientists are left fighting for the scraps. One of only five Ph.D. scientist-defectors now known to be in South Korea, computer scientist Kim Heung Kwang, fled North Korea in 2003 not for political reasons or because he was starving—rather, he hungered to use modern computers.
To help North Korea bolster its budding IT infrastructure and not aid its military, PUST will have to walk a tightrope. School officials have voluntarily cleared curricula with the U.S. government, which has weighed in on details as fine as the name of one of PUST’s first three schools. The School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies, says Park. North Korean officials, meanwhile, forbid PUST from launching an MBA program—a degree too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “So we call it industrial management,” Park says. “But the contents are similar to those of an MBA.”
Besides cleansing PUST of any weapons-grade information, Park and university representatives are working with the U.S. Commerce Department to win export licenses for advanced computing equipment and scientific instruments not prohibited by dual-use restrictions. Approval is necessary for equipment consisting of 10 percent or more of U.S.-made components. “You can attach foreign-made peripheral devices and reduce U.S. components to less than 10 percent, but that’s a kind of cheating,” Park says. “We want to strictly follow the law.”
This improbable initiative in scientific engagement was a long time in the making. PUST’s chief architect is founding president Kim Chin Kyung, who in 1998 established his first venture in higher education: Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeastern China’s Jilin Province, just across the border from North Korea. A businessman who studied divinity in university, Kim, who goes by his English name James, was accused of being a spy on a visit to North Korea in 1998 and imprisoned there for six weeks. He stuck with YUST, however, and in 2001, North Korean education officials visiting the university stunned Kim by inviting him to establish a similar university in Pyongyang. Kim got a rapturous response when he pitched the idea to YUST’s sponsors.
Progress came in fits and starts. PUST was originally envisioned to open in 2005, but work on the initial 17 buildings of the $35 million, 100-hectare campus in southern Pyongyang’s Rakrang district was completed only last year. North Korean education officials have promised the school academic freedom and internet access. Such startling privileges will be doled out byte by byte. “In the beginning, they are allowing us to do emailing,” says Park. Full internet access is expected to come after PUST earns their keepers’ trust. “To do research, really you have to use the internet. The North Korean government realizes that. Once they know students are not using the internet for something else, it should be allowed,” Park says.
While YUST and PUST may both have ardent-Christian backers and cumbersome acronyms, the atmosphere on the two campuses will be markedly divergent. In Yanji, encounters outside the classroom are common: faculty and students even dine together in a common hall. “YUST professors and students are like one family,” says Park.
In contrast, PUST students and faculty will inhabit two entirely different worlds that only merge in the classroom. The North Korean government handpicked the inaugural class of 100 undergraduates and 60 graduate students, including 40 grads who will study IT. All will study technical English this fall, then in March a wider roster of courses will become available after key professors and equipment arrive on campus. A student leader will shepherd students to and from class to ensure that no lamb goes astray. “There will be no way to teach the gospel,” says Doh.
PUST professors expect to be impressed with the students, selected from Kim Il Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology. “These are the most brilliant students in North Korea,” says Doh. PUST plans to ramp up enrolment to 2,000 undergrads and 600 graduate students by 2012. To expose these young, agile minds to a wide range of ideas, PUST plans to fly in a number of visiting professors during the summer terms. They also intend to seek permission for students from other Pyongyang universities to attend the summer sessions. As trust develops, PUST hopes that some of its students will be able to participate in exchange programs and study abroad.
PUST’s success may hinge on the disposition of North Korea’s leader in waiting. Kim Jong Un was tutored privately by a “brilliant” graduate of Université Paris X who chaired the computer science department at Kim Chaek University of Technology before disappearing from public view in the early 1980s, says Kim Heung Kwang, who studied at Kim Chaek before working as a professor at Hamhung Computer College and Hamhung Communist College. After defecting and settling in Seoul, Kim founded North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group of university-educated defectors that raises awareness of conditions in North Korea.
According to internal North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong Un oversees a cyberwarfare unit that launched a sophisticated denial-of-service attack on South Korean and U.S. government websites in July 2009. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service blamed the North, which has not commented publicly on the attack. Kim Jong Un’s involvement cannot be confirmed, says Kim Heung Kwang. “But Kim Jong Un is a young person with a background in information technology, so he may desire to transform North Korea from a labor-intense economy to a knowledge economy like South Korea is doing.”
Another big wildcard is North-South relations. After the sinking of the Cheonan, South Korea froze assistance to the North. In the event of a thaw, “the South wants to build a digital complex” in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or in South Korea similar to the Kaesong industrial complex, says Oh. This, he says, “would be the base camp of North Korea’s IT industry development.” North Korea has reacted lukewarm to the idea: It would prefer that such a venture be based in Pyongyang, says Lee. To facilitate denuclearization and help skilled North Korean workers adapt to market economics, the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Seoul has proposed the establishment of an Inter-Korean Science and Technology Cooperation Center modeled after similar centers established in Kiev and Moscow after the Soviet breakup.
Such projects, if they were to materialize, along with well-trained graduates from PUST, may help pull North Korea’s economy up by its bootstraps. “We are trying to make them more inclined to do business, to make their country wealthier,” says Park. “It will make a big difference once they get a taste of money. That’s the way to open up North Korea.”
North Korea, one of the world’s few remaining information black holes, has taken the first step toward a fully fledged connection to the Internet. But a connection, if it comes, is unlikely to mean freedom of information for North Korea’s citizens.
In the past few months, a block of 1,024 Internet addresses, reserved for many years for North Korea but never touched, has been registered to a company with links to the government in Pyongyang.
The numeric IP addresses lie at the heart of communication on the Internet. Every computer connected to the network needs its own address so that data can be sent and received by the correct servers and computers. Without them, communication would fall apart.
It is unclear how the country’s secretive leadership plans to make use of the addresses. It seems likely they will be assigned for military or government use, but experts say it is impossible to know for sure.
North Korea’s move toward the Internet comes as it finds itself increasingly isolated on the world stage. The recent sinking of a South Korean warship has been blamed on the insular country. As a result, there are calls for tougher sanctions that would isolate North Korea further.
“There is no place for the Internet in contemporary DPRK,” said Leonid A. Petrov, a lecturer in Korean studies at The University of Sydney, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “If the people of North Korea were to have open access to the World Wide Web, they would start learning the truth that has been concealed from them for the last six decades.”
“Unless Kim Jong-Il or his successors feel suicidal, the Internet, like any other free media, will never be allowed in North Korea,” he said.
The North Korean addresses were recently put under the control of Star Joint Venture, a Pyongyang-based company that is partly controlled by Thailand’s Loxley Pacific. The Thai company has experience working with North Korea on high-tech projects, having built North Korea’s first cellular telephone network, Sunnet, in 2002.
Loxley acknowledged that it is working on a project with Pyongyang, but Sahayod Chiradejsakulwong, a manager at the company, wouldn’t elaborate on plans for the addresses.
“This is a part of our business that we do no want to provide information about at the moment,” he said.
A connection to the Internet would represent a significant upgrade of the North’s place in cyberspace, but it’s starting from a very low base.
At present the country relies on servers in other countries to disseminate information. The Web site of the Korea Central News Agency, the North’s official mouthpiece, runs on a server in Japan, while Uriminzokkiri, the closest thing the country has to an official Web site, runs from a server in China.
North Korean citizens have access to a nationwide intranet system called Kwangmyong, which was established around 2000 by the Pyongyang-based Korea Computer Center. It connects universities, libraries, cybercafes and other institutions with Web sites and e-mail, but offers no links to the outside world.
Connections to the actual Internet are severely limited to the most elite members of society. Estimates suggest no more than a few thousand North Koreans have access to the Internet, via a cross-border hook-up to China Netcom. A second connection exists, via satellite to Germany, and is used by diplomats and companies.
For normal citizens of North Korea, the idea of an Internet hook-up is unimaginable, Petrov said.
Kim Jong-Il, the de-facto leader of the country, appears all too aware of the destructive power that freedom of information would have to his regime.
While boasting of his own prowess online at an inter-Korean summit meeting in 2007, he reportedly rejected an Internet connection to the Kaesong Industrial Park, the jointly run complex that sits just north of the border, and said that “many problems would arise if the Internet at the Kaesong Park is connected to other parts of North Korea.”
Kim himself has made no secret of the Internet access that he enjoys, and famously asked then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address during a meeting in 2000.
The government’s total control over information extends even as far as requiring radios be fixed on domestic stations so foreign voices cannot be heard.
The policy shows no signs of changing, so any expansion of the Internet into North Korea would likely be used by the government, military or major corporations.
Think of North Korea, and repression, starvation and military provocation are probably the first things that come to mind. But beyond the geopolitical posturing, North Korea has also been quietly building up its IT industry.
Universities have been graduating computer engineers and scientists for several years, and companies have recently sprung up to pair the local talent with foreign needs, making the country perhaps the world’s most unusual place for IT outsourcing.
With a few exceptions, such as in India, outsourcing companies in developing nations tend to be small, with fewer than 100 employees, said Paul Tija, a Rotterdam-based consultant on offshoring and outsourcing. But North Korea already has several outsourcers with more then 1,000 employees.
“The government is putting an emphasis on building the IT industry,” he said. “The availability of staff is quite large.”
At present, the country’s outsourcers appear to be targeting several niche areas, including computer animation, data input and software design for mobile phones. U.S. government restrictions prevent American companies from working with North Korean companies, but most other nations don’t have such restrictions.
The path to IT modernization began in the 1990s but was cemented in the early 2000s when Kim Jong Il, the de-facto leader of the country, declared people who couldn’t use computers to be one of the three fools of the 21st century. (The others, he said, are smokers and those ignorant of music.)
But outsourcing in North Korea isn’t always easy.
Language can be a problem, and a lack of experience dealing with foreign companies can sometimes slow business dealings, said Tija. But the country has one big advantage.
“It is one of the most competitive places in the world. There are not many other countries where you can find the same level of knowledge for the price,” said Tija.
The outsourcer with the highest profile is probably Nosotek. The company, established in 2007, is also one of the few Western IT ventures in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
“I understood that the North Korean IT industry had good potential because of their skilled software engineers, but due to the lack of communication it was almost impossible to work with them productively from outside,” said Volker Eloesser, president of Nosotek. “So I took the next logical step and started a company here.”
Nosotek uses foreign expats as project managers to provide an interface between customers and local workers. In doing so it can deliver the level of communication and service its customers expect, Eloesser said.
On its Web site the company boasts access to the best programmers in Pyongyang.
“You find experts in all major programming languages, 3D software development, 3D modelling and design, various kind of server technologies, Linux, Windows and Mac,” he said.
Nosotek’s main work revolves around development of Flash games and games for mobile phones. It’s had some success and claims that one iPhone title made the Apple Store Germany’s top 10 for at least a week, though it wouldn’t say which one.
Several Nosotek-developed games are distributed by Germany’s Exonet Games, including one block-based game called “Bobby’s Blocks.”
“They did a great job with their latest games and the communication was always smooth,” said Marc Busse, manager of digital distribution at the Leipzig-based company. “There’s no doubt I would recommend Nosotek if someone wants to outsource their game development to them.”
Eloesser admits there are some challenges to doing business from North Korea.
“The normal engineer has no direct access to the Internet due to government restrictions. This is one of the main obstacles when doing IT business here,” he said. Development work that requires an Internet connection is transferred across the border to China.
But perhaps the biggest problem faced by North Korea’s nascent outsourcing industry is politics.
Sanctions imposed on the country by the United States make it all but impossible for American companies to trade with North Korea.
“I know several American companies that would love to start doing IT outsourcing in North Korea, but because of political reasons and trade embargoes they can’t,” Tija said.
Things aren’t so strict for companies based elsewhere, including those in the European Union, but the possible stigma of being linked to North Korea and its ruling regime is enough to make some companies think twice.
The North Korean government routinely practices arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill treatment of detainees, and allows no political opposition, free media or religious freedom, according to the most recent annual report from Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are kept in political prison camps, and the country carries out public executions, the organization said.
With this reputation some companies might shy away from doing business with the country, but Exonet Games didn’t have any such qualms, said Busse.
“It’s not like we worked with the government,” he said. “We just worked with great people who have nothing to do with the dictatorship.”
Economic sanctions by the United States and other western countries is actually strengthening the Kim Jong-il’s regime, a German social worker involved with a non-government organization told reporters here this morning. Sanctions are also affecting life in other ways like the new-found emphasis on sustainable agriculture, she said.
“The leaders are using the sanctions as a justification. People believe the country is in a bad condition because of outside forces,” Karin Janz, country director in North Korea for the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, said while speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing. The official media justified its actions as efforts to fortify the nation against the onslaught of foreign forces, and the people fully believed it, she said.
The sanctions have hit the North Korean agriculture and caused fears of a worsening of the food situation, Karin said. “The North Korean agriculture is highly industrialized,” she said while explaining the country’s agriculture is heavily dependent on imported farm machines and chemical fertilizers. Most of these materials came from South Korea, which has now slammed the doors.
The government has suddenly realized the value of sustainable development and is asking agricultural cooperatives to change their focus. They are being asked to go for organic farming, grow composts and reduce their dependence on chemicals. It is a new policy on sustainable development by default, she said.
“It could be a good start in the direction of sustainable development. But it is a long way to rehabilitate the soil, which is badly damaged” she said.
The Internet is banned to ensure that local citizens do not communicate with the outside world. There is a limited form of Intranet for university students to chat among themselves. But if the ban on Internet were to be lifted, most North Koreans will use it to absorb new knowledge and grow the country with new technological inputs.
“I cannot imagine some kind of opposition rising because it is simply not possible,” she said while discussing the highly militarized nature of the society. The government controls every aspect of life in North Korea and ordinary people seem to be comfortable living in some kind of a “safety shell”, she said.
Patriotism runs high among the people and most have full faith in their leaders. The only sign of dissatisfaction Karin saw was in January when currency reforms hit a large number of people very badly. People who held old currency notes suddenly found they could not exchange them for the new Won notes the government introduced early this year.
Welthungerhilfe is one of the few foreign NGOs that are still operating in North Korea when most of the others have left either because of the challenges posed by government rules and the drying of financing from western sources. There are many Chinese NGOs but the local government does not allow they to communication with those from western countries.
In her five years travelling across nine provinces of North Korea, Karin has not come across a single case of starvation. The food situation is bad, but it is not as grave as the western media tended to show, she said. The government has also done a fairly good job of developing infrastructure and provide school education although the conditions are still a far cry from what prevails in the developed world, she said.