Hermit Surfers of Pyongyang

Last week, North Korea was accused of  launching a series of annoying DOS attacks on web pages across the planet.  While doing some research on this story, I stumbled on “Hermit Surfers of Pongyang” by Stephen Mercato at the CIA.  This story highlights the ways the DPRK is using the Internet to support their system.  Below are some excerpts from the article:

Facilitating scientific research

The Internet has greatly enhanced the ease with which North Korea can acquire foreign data. Researchers can surf the Internet via a connection routed through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.  The accomplishments of Dr. Hwang Tok-man, a researcher on the biology faculty of Kim Il-song University, illustrates P’yongyang’s embrace of IT. Her research focus has been the structural and functional analysis of proteins, or proteomics. She also has explored the intersection of biology and information technology, compiling a “huge” structural database. Using an IBM Aptiva S-series computer and data from the Protein Database of the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, she and a colleague examined the structure-function relationships of cellulases, enzymes that break down cellulose. They used the Align, Clustal V, and FASTA programs to compare the amino acid sequences and exploited overseas protein sequence databases to study the molecular evolution of a nuclease, an enzyme that splits nucleic acids.

The Internet has also eased the collection burden born by pro-DPRK Koreans living overseas. An article on the Web site of the Korean Association of Science and Technology in Japan (KAST), part of the [chongryun], describes the benefits of the Internet for KAST members who gather information in Japan for North Korea:

Data Dissemination 

In addition to enhancing foreign collection capabilities, the Internet has made dissemination of data within North Korea easier. Researchers based outside the capital no longer need to travel to P’yongyang for necessary information. For example, members of the Academy of Sciences, located on the outskirts of the capital, have for years commuted into the city on a particular train that “serves the convenience of the scientists to frequent the Grand People’s Study House and other organs.” Scientists now can access data of the GPSH, CSTIA, Kim Il-song University, and other data repositories via “Kwangmyong,” the DPRK S&T Intranet developed in 1997. Kwangmyong consists of a browser, an e-mail program, news groups, a search engine, and a file transfer system, programs developed by CSTIA. The online version of CSTIA’s Kwangmyong 2001 dictionary allows on-screen translation.

The Internet in the DPRK

While allowing researchers to use the Internet to keep current with global trends in science and technology, P’yongyang has been able to retain control over unwelcome political information. The government can promote scientific exploration while keeping researchers in country and under surveillance. Computers conducting Internet searches are more readily monitored than the photocopying machines that served to spread forbidden political tracts in the former Soviet Union. With Internet searches easily tracked and the penalties for political dissent grave, it is difficult to imagine scientists straying from technology sites. The same applies to the domestic Intranet, where technicians exchanging e-mail messages on political issues would run a serious risk of late-night knocks on the door by members of the security forces.

Read the full article here.


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