Will the internet liberate North Korea?

by Jack Landsberg

North Korea's Cyberpath

The Soviet Union collapsed due to its backwardness and lack of development especially in relation to the United States. Because the USSR didn’t develop its IT sector, it fell behind and died (Kim). Currently, North Korea is facing a similar fate. In order to be a part of the global economy, North Korea must have an established cyber presence. Yet, any nation-wide access would inherently pose a threat to the Kim regime. So, the question looms: will North Korea abandon its dictatorship, welcome the power of the Internet, and survive, or will it die as an oppressive and cruel state. Either way, the Internet appears to be a catalyst for the demise of the Kim regime.

Yet, “as seen in the case of China, socialist states can successfully shift toward a digital economy by developing various control systems in the course of opening the Internet and preparing political and social conditions for IT development” (Kim). North Korean leaders in this situation definitely want to have their cake and eat it too. To maintain the regime and develop its digital economy would be a win-win for the Kim dynasty. While Internet access would help educate and liberate North Koreans, an established, government-controlled digital economy would only enable the Kim regime.

So, will the Internet liberate or further enslave North Koreans? Only time will tell.

What does the International Effort look like?

The Amnesty International group is dedicated to upholding and preserving human rights around the world. They are a NGO and are well known for their work. However, as we consider how much a group like Amnesty International would have to do to bring Internet Freedom to North Korea, it becomes clear that Amnesty International is not ready, or capable, of bringing Internet freedom to North Korea. Although it is discouraging, Amnesty International’s view reflects that of most of the liberal nations that would be prepared to aid the North Korean people: indifference. In 2009, Amnesty International lobbied for a mere $504,000 from the United States government that would go to seventeen different issues—not just Internet freedom—in sixteen different countries, hardly enough to help develop any IT infrastructure in North Korea (Hawkings).

Moreover, groups like Amnesty International, when they turn their attention to North Korea, don’t focus on bringing Internet Access to North Koreans. According to their website, Amnesty International finds that, “In North Korea the government still fails to uphold its population’s basic right to food and health care” (Asia). And that’s it. NGO’s, when they look to North Korea, see the prison camps and the widespread hunger and don’t acknowledge the gravity of the lack of data and Internet access in North Korea. While they recognize the potential power the Internet could have in North Korea, international groups aren’t ready to prioritize Internet access and freedom ahead of starvation.

Thus, it’s unlikely that North Korea will receive widespread Internet capabilities because it’s hard for international actors to justify supporting Internet infrastructure when there is so much human suffering going on in North Korea.

Prioritizing Hacking Over Liberty

Richard Clarke is an expert on the Internet and cyber attacks. In 2010 he gave this talk before congress highlighting North Korea’s recent cyber attack on the United States, warning against future attacks. According to Clarke, North Korea is a dangerous cyber foe simply because they have nothing to lose. Without any infrastructure, North Korea has nothing to protect; they can be purely offensive-minded online (Clarke). And, as they’ve shown, they will be. Although North Korea doesn’t have internet access, that does not prevent North Korean hackers from operating from China and South Korea (Clarke).

While Clarke recognizes the threat that North Korea poses, he refers to North Korea more as a terrorist cell than a state. Why? Because that’s how they act. From the cyber attack in 2010 in which North Korea attacked American government agencies—the largest cyber attack against America at that point—to the Sony hack in 2014, North Korea has demonstrated its hacking prowess (Clarke).

But what does this mean for the liberty of North Koreans? North Korea’s tendency towards hacking and cyber terrorism reveals that the North Korean government has prioritized the furthering of the Kim regime ahead of the well-being of the people. Hacking is an act that undermines another state, not an act that bolsters the capabilities of the state itself. North Korea would rather hack away at the United States than try to feed its own people. This proves that the Internet in North Korea is just an insidious tool used by the Kim regime.

North Korea Can Turn Off the Internet? What Does This Mean?

Given the recent Sony hack and subsequent stoppage of Internet in North Korea, many questions have arisen as to the state of the Internet in North Korea. According to Matthew Prince, CEO of CloudFlare, a company committed to preserving global Internet access, “If North Korea isn’t the least connected country in the world, it’s definitely in the top five” (Prince). In an interview with The Telegraph UK, Prince detailed just how sparse Internet access in North Korea is. In North Korea today, “there are only about one thousand assigned IP addresses assigned to the entire country” which is shockingly low given the fact that there are nearly 25 million people there (Prince). Moreover, the Internet only has one way in and one way out of North Korea. There is a “pipeline” of data, so to speak, that runs through mainland China and is closely monitored and controlled by the North Korean government (Prince). So, when an intimidating event—like the Sony hack—happened, the government had the power to completely shut off the Internet.

Yet, companies like Prince’s can’t confirm that the government causes these “data blackouts” in North Korea. The North Korean Internet is fragile and vulnerable to an attack from both inside and outside of the country. And, it’s a positive sign to see that a company like CloudFlare even exists. It shows that individuals who aren’t affiliated with NGOs or states have identified the Internet as a catalyst for social change in North Korea. Although nothing is certain, the hope of North Korean Internet access cannot be deemed dead just yet. There is hope for North Koreans because a nascent infrastructure exists and cyber-savvy individuals across the world have recognized the need for the Internet in North Korea and are willing to help.

The Plot to Free North Korea With Episodes of 'Friends'

It’s no mystery that there is an utter lack of data and information available to the public in North Korea. Defectors like Kang Chol-hwan, now living in South Korea, have identified the data vacuum in North Korea as one of the instruments of oppression that Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship utilizes. The North Korean people largely accept the propaganda of the Kim dynasty simply because they don’t have the information—regarding both the outside world and their own livelihoods—to refute and revolt against it. According to the article, Kang Chol-hwan, the leader of the North Korea Strategy Center, “likens the USB sticks [he smuggles] to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions. ‘When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,’ Kang says… ‘They realize that [America] isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves” (Greenberg).

The regime in North Korea has maintained control of its people with heavy doses of censorship and propaganda. But, thanks to underground smuggling operations, black markets, and a unique North Korean thirst for entertainment, knowledge and freedom, today around “74 percent of North Koreans have access to a TV and 46 percent can access a DVD player” (Greenberg). Even a group called Liberty in North Korea, which works with young defector refugees, “[found] that many no longer believe in central tenets of North Korea’s political ideology, such as the country’s superior standard of living or the godlike power of the Kim family” (Greenberg).

Kim Jong-Un’s controlling grip on North Korea is slipping now that the mentality of North Koreans is changing. Even though there is a near complete lack of internet access, there are about 3.5 million PCs and 5 million tablets in the country (Greenberg). North Korea is poised, and all too eager, for the internet to flood into their hermit nation and wash away all of the lies, illusions and abuses of the Kim dynasty.

Works Cited

"Asia and the Pacific." Amnesty International USA. Amnesty International, 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/asia- and-the-pacific>.

Clarke, Richard. Book Discussion on Cyber War. N.d. C-SPAN. Web. 25 Apr. 2015. <http://www.c-span.org/video/?293380-1/book-discussion-cyber-war-fight>. Transcript.

Greenberg, Andy. "The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of 'Friends' | WIRED." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 1 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.

Hawkings, Betsy W. "Amnesty International Lobby." Senate.gov. Proc. of Lobby Report, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington D.C. N.p., 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://soprweb.senate.gov/index.cfm?event=getFilingDetails&filingID=0CEF1BCE-2E2A-4CB3-A7D7-6AC28DE8895A&filingTypeID=69>.

Kim, Yoo Hyang. "NORTH KOREA'S CYBERPATH." Asian Perspective 28.3, The Changing Face of Chinese Politics and International Relations (2004): 191-209. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Prince, Matthew. "Internet in North Korea: Everything You Need to Know." Interview. The Telegraph. The Telegraph UK, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/11309882/Internet-in-North-Korea-everything-you-need-to-know.html>.

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