The state of North Korea’s information-technology (IT) industry has been a matter of conjecture ever since “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il famously asked then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address during her visit to the country in October 2000.
The answer is that it is surprisingly sophisticated. North Korea may be one of the world’s least globalized countries, but it has long produced ballistic missiles and now even a nuclear arsenal, so it is actually hardly surprising that it also has developed advanced computer technology, and its own software.
Naturally, it lags far behind South Korea, the world’s most wired country, but a mini-IT revolution is taking place in North Korea. Some observers, such as Alexandre Mansourov, a specialist on North Korean security issues at the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), believes that in the long run it may “play a major role in reshaping macroeconomic policymaking and the microeconomic behavior of the North Korean officials and economic actors respectively”.
Sanctions imposed against North Korea after its nuclear test last October may have made it a bit more difficult for the country to obtain high-tech goods from abroad, but not impossible. Its string of front companies in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan are still able to acquire what the country needs. It’s not all for military use, but as with everything else in North Korea, products from its IT industry have both civilian and non-civilian applications.
The main agency commanding North Korea’s IT strategy is the Korea Computer Center (KCC), which was set up in 1990 by Kim Jong-il himself at an estimated cost of US$530 million. Its first chief was the Dear Leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who at that time also headed the State Security Agency, North Korea’s supreme security apparatus, which is now called the State Safety and Security Agency.
Functioning as a secret-police force, the agency is responsible for counterintelligence at home and abroad and, according to the American Federation of Scientists, “carries out duties to ensure the safety and maintenance of the system, such as search for and management of anti-system criminals, immigration control, activities for searching out spies and impure and antisocial elements, the collection of overseas information, and supervision over ideological tendencies of residents. It is charged with searching out anti-state criminals – a general category that includes those accused of anti-government and dissident activities, economic crimes, and slander of the political leadership. Camps for political prisoners are under its jurisdiction.”
In the 1980s, Kim Jong-nam studied at an international private school in Switzerland, where he learned computer science as well as several foreign languages, including English and French. Shortly after the formation of the KCC, South Korean intelligence sources assert, he moved the agency’s clandestine overseas information-gathering outfit to the center’s new building in Pyongyang’s Mangyongdae district. It was gutted by fire in 1997, but rebuilt with a budget of $1 billion, a considerable sum in North Korea. It included the latest facilities and equipment that could be obtained from abroad. According to its website, the KCC has 11 provincial centers and “branch offices, joint ventures and marketing offices in Germany, China, Syria, [the United] Arab Emirates and elsewhere”.
The KCC’s branch in Germany was established in 2003 by a German businessman, Jan Holtermann, and is in Berlin. At the same time, Holtermann set up an intranet service in Pyongyang and, according to Reporters Without Borders, “reportedly spent 700,000 euros [more than US$950,000] on it. To get around laws banning the transfer of sensitive technology to the Pyongyang regime, all data will be kept on servers based in Germany and sent by satellite to North Korean Internet users.” Nevertheless, it ended the need to dial Internet service providers in China to get out on the Web.
Holtermann also arranged for some of the KCC’s products to be shown for the first time in the West at the international IT exhibition CeBIT (Center of Office and Information Technology) last year in Hanover, Germany. The KCC’s branches in China are also active and maintain offices in the capital Beijing and Dalian in the northeast.
Another North Korean computer company, Silibank in Shenyang, in 2001 actually became North Korea’s first Internet service provider, offering an experimental e-mail relay service through gateways in China. In March 2004, the North Koreans established a software company, also in Shenyang, called the Korea 615 Editing Corp, which according to press releases at the time would “provide excellent software that satisfies the demand from Chinese consumers with competitive prices”.
Inside North Korea, however, access to e-mail and the Internet remains extremely limited. The main “intranet” service is provided by the Kwangmyong computer network, which includes a browser, an internal e-mail program, newsgroups and a search engine. Most of its users are government agencies, research institutes, educational organizations – while only people like Kim Jong-il, a known computer buff, have full Internet access.
But the country beams out its own propaganda over Internet sites such as Uriminzokkiri.com, which in Korean, Chinese, Russian and Japanese carries the writings of Kim Jong-il and his father, “the Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, along with pictures of scenic Mount Paekdu near the Chinese border, the “cradle of the Korean revolution”, from where Kim Il-sung ostensibly led the resistance against the Japanese colonial power during World War II, and where Kim Jong-il was born, according to the official version of history. Most other sources would assert that the older Kim spent the war years in exile in a camp near the small village of Vyatskoye 70 kilometers north of Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, where the younger Kim was actually born in 1942.
The official Korean Central New Agency also has its own website, KCNA.co.jp, which is maintained by pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans in Japan, and carries daily news bulletins in Korean, English, Russian and Spanish, but with rather uninspiring headlines such as “Kim Jong-il sends message of greetings to Syrian president”, “Kim Jong-il’s work published in Mexico” and “Floral basket to DPRK [North Korea] Embassy [in Phnom Penh] from Cambodian Great King and Great Queen”.
On the more innocent side, the KCC produces software for writing with Korean characters a Korean version of Linux, games for personal computers and PlayStation – and an advanced computer adaptation of go, a kind of Asian chess game, which, according to the Dutch IT firm GPI Consultancy, “has won the world championship for go games for several years. The games department has a display showing all the trophies which were won during international competitions.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the North Koreans also produce some of the software for mobile phones made by the South Korean company Samsung, which began collaboration with the KCC in March 2000. North Korean computer experts have received training in China, Russia and India, and are considered, even by the South Koreans, as some of the best in the world.
More ominously, in October 2004, South Korea’s Defense Ministry reported to the country’s National Assembly that the North had trained “more than 500 computer hackers capable of launching cyber-warfare” against its enemies. “North Korea’s intelligence-warfare capability is estimated to have reached the level of advanced countries,” the report said, adding that the military hackers had been put through a five-year university course training them to penetrate the computer systems of South Korea, the United States and Japan.
According to US North Korea specialist Joseph Bermudez, “The Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces understands electronic warfare to consist of operations using electromagnetic spectrum to attack the enemy by jamming or spoofing. During the 1990s, the ministry identified electronic intelligence warfare as a new type of warfare, the essence of which is the disruption or destruction of the opponent’s computer networks – thereby paralyzing their military command and control system.”
Skeptical observers have noted that US firewalls should be able to prevent that from happening, and that North Korea still has a long way to go before it can seriously threaten the sophisticated computer networks of South Korea, Japan and the US.
It is also uncertain whether Kim Jong-nam still heads the KCC and the State Safety and Security Agency. In May 2001, he was detained at Tokyo’s airport at Narita for using what appeared to be a false passport from the Dominican Republic. He had arrived in the Japanese capital from Singapore with some North Korean children to visit Tokyo Disneyland – but instead found himself being deported to China. Since then, he has spent most of his time in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, where he has been seen in the city’s casinos and massage parlors. This February, the Japanese and Hong Kong media published pictures of him in Macau, and details of his lavish lifestyle there – which prompted him to leave for mainland China, where he is now believed to be living.
Whatever Kim Jong-nam’s present status may be in the North Korean hierarchy, the KCC is more active than ever, and so is another software developer, the Pyongyang Informatics Center, which, at least until recently, had a branch in Singapore. Other links in the region include Taiwan’s Jiage Limited Corporation, which has entered a joint-venture operation with the KCC under the rather curious name Chosun Daedong River Electronic Calculator Joint Operation Companies, which, according to South Korea’s trade agency, KOTRA, produces computers and circuit boards.
The US Trading with the Enemy Act and restrictions under the international Wassenaar Arrangement, which controls the trade in dual-use goods and technologies (military and civilian), may prohibit the transfer of advanced technology to North Korea, but with easy ways around these restrictions, sanctions seem to have had little or no effect.
North Korea’s IT development seems unstoppable, and the APCSS’s Mansourov argues that it can “both strengthen and undermine political propaganda and ideological education, as well as totalitarian surveillance and control systems imposed by the absolutist and monarchic security-paranoid state on its people, especially at the time of growing conflict between an emerging entrepreneurial politico-corporate elites and the old military-industrial elite”.
So will the IT revolution, as he puts it, “liquefy or solidify the ground underneath Kim Jong-il’s regime? Will the IT revolution be the beginning of the end of North Korea, at least as we know it today?” Most probably, it will eventually break North Korea’s isolation, even if the country’s powerful military also benefits from improved technologies. And there may be a day when the KCNA will have something more exciting to report about than “A furnace-firing ceremony held at the Taean Friendship Glass Factory”.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.