Weird but Wired

the Economist

Online dating in Pyongyang? Surely not

KIM JONG IL, North Korea’s dictator, has interests in modern technology beyond his dabbling in nuclear weaponry. In 2000 he famously asked Madeleine Albright, then America’s secretary of state, for her e-mail address. Mr Kim believes there are three kinds of fool in the 21st century: smokers, the tone-deaf and the computer-illiterate.

One of his young compatriots is certainly no fool. “Officially, our computers are mainly for educational and scientific purposes,” he says, before claiming: “Chatting on our web, I also met my girlfriend.”

Internet dating is only one of the surprises about the internet in North Korea, a country almost as cut off from the virtual world as it is from the real one. At one of the rare free markets open to foreigners, brand-new computers from China are sold to the local nouveaux riches complete with Windows software. Elsewhere, second-hand ones are available far more cheaply. In most schools, computer courses are now compulsory.

In the heart of the capital, Pyongyang, visitors are supposed to be able to surf freely through the 30m official texts stored at the Grand People’s Study House, the local version of the Library of Congress. The country’s first cyber café opened in 2002 and was soon followed by others, even in the countryside. Some are packed with children playing computer games.

But the world wide web is still largely absent. Web pages of the official news agency, KCNA, said to be produced by the agency’s bureau in Japan, divulge little more than the daily “on the spot guidance” bestowed by Kim Jong Il. No one in Pyongyang has forgotten that glasnost and perestroika—openness and transparency—killed the Soviet Union.

The local ideology being juche, or self-reliance, the country installed a fibre-optic cable network for domestic use, and launched a nationwide intranet in 2000. Known as Kwangmyong (“bright”), it has a browser, an e-mail programme, news groups and a search engine. Only a few thousand people are allowed direct access to the internet. The rest are “protected” (ie, sealed off) by a local version of China’s “great firewall”, controlled by the Korean Computer Centre. As a CIA report puts it, this system limits “the risks of foreign defection or ideological infection”. On the other hand, North Koreans with access to the outer world are supposed to plunder the web to feed Kwangmyong—a clever way to disseminate technical information to research institutes, factories and schools without losing control.

Yet even today, more and more business cards in Pyongyang carry e-mail addresses, albeit usually collective ones. A west European businessman says he is astonished by the speed with which his North Korean counterparts respond to his e-mails, leading him to wonder if teams of people are using the same name. This is, however, North Korea, and sometimes weeks go by in virtual silence.

In some places, North Korea’s internet economy seems to be overheating. Near the northern border, Chinese cell phones—and the prepaid phone cards needed to use them—are a hot black-market item, despite government efforts to ban them. The new web-enabled phones might soon give free access to the Chinese web which, for all its no-go areas, is a paradise of liberty compared with Kwangmyong. In this region, known for its casinos, online gambling sites are said to be increasingly active.

Last summer the police were reported to have cracked down on several illegal internet cafés which offered something more daring than the average chatting and dating. Despite the signs that North Korea’s web culture is ready to take off, internet-juche remains a reassuring form of control in the hermit regime.


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