More articles by Leonid A.Petrov
Korea Web editor's note: This document is a HTML version of Leonid A. Petrov's article with some notes added (in Italics) for clarity..
North Korea's recent entry into the global computer network is one of the most surprising developments in Communist agitation and propaganda after the collapse of the Communist bloc.
The very idea of a virtual bridge between the smouldering wreck of the Cold War and the new world of global integration awakens great interest among internet users; it excites some and horrifies others. The use of cutting-edge computer and telecommunication technologies by North Korea has enabled this classic example of oriental despotism with its added ugliness of Stalinist political culture to become a competent player in the global information market.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has already launched its official homepage in Japan, and there are now twenty pro-North Korean sites opened in other countries (including Australia). However, this is not to say that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has become more transparent or open to foreign scrutiny.
It seems that the creators of the North Korean official site merely repeat the line of 'Pyongyang Times', 'The Peoples Korea', 'Korea', 'Korea Today' and other foreign-language propagandist periodicals. Little attention is paid to the dire realities of present day North Korea. Instead, the images of happy workers and peasants, exuberant revolutionary intelligentsia, and the faultless Great Leader dominate in everyday publications. In 1996, all these hackneyed characters have found their way into cyberspace from out behind the Iron Curtain.
The purpose and efficiency of such a venture for the North Korean regime currently experiencing the worst ever foreign currency shortage is questionable. The official web sites are obviously designed not for domestic use. North Korean people do not have computers at their personal disposal and direct access to the internet is inconceivable for technical and security reasons.
South Korean consumers, to whom these materials are primarily addressed, are seriously discouraged by their own authorities from attempting to access the sites, which have been outlawed. Some curious foreigners and nostalgic expatriate Koreans who have unlimited freedom of access to the North Korean homepage will not be impressed by the blunt propaganda and officious style of the carefully rationed news. DPRK representatives overseas also usually avoid responding to incoming messages from unknown people, which excludes any opportunity for interaction by e-mail.
It may be appropriate to assume that Pyongyang is preoccupied with the desire to lure potential investors. However, closer analysis of internet materials reveals blatant contradictions between this course and real-politics. Despite the loudly proclaimed (but never revealed for its own population) strategy to attract foreign capital, DPRK official ideology still bristles up against notions of global society and global economic integration.
Such a discrepancy, which appeared at the outset of the North Korean involvement in the internet, is still a puzzling feature of their politics and discloses the absence of a clear strategy among DPRK leaders.
The US government economic embargo, employed at the beginning of Korean War (1950-1953), effectively contributed to the isolation of North Korea from the rest of the world. It was not until January 1995 that the US Department of State announced changes in US policy allowing telecommunication companies to provide services to its the former adversary. In 10 April 1995, AT&T became the first Western company which extended its operation to DPRK.
In addition to consumer and commercial long-distance services, AT&T planned to offer some business communication services for switched voice traffic to North Korea, including Software Defined Network International Service, Campus Services, and a variety of high-volume usage plans for medium-sized customers.
However, the direct-dial service appeared to be available from the USA to the city of Pyongyang only. Calls placed to locations outside of the North Korean capital still have to be placed through an AT&T operator. For the rest of the world (including former Communist bloc countries) the North Korean telephone network is still closed.
"We are pleased that we now can provide service to help people in the United States and North Korea get in touch with special people in their lives," said Shaun Gilmore, AT&T vice president for global markets and services. Giving such a sentimental remark, S Gilmore was probably unaware that citizens of DPRK are not allowed to maintain unsupervised contact with foreigners (especially Americans), and the circle of those who have this privilege is notoriously limited. Therefore, the launch of a direct long-distance service to DPRK itself is not a serious breakthrough in information exchange with North Korea.
As for domestic telephone service, up until the late 1980s DPRK had Automatic Telephone Stations (ATS) established in only two major cities: Pyongyang and Kaesong. Calls through the rest of the country could be made via operator only. According to the evidence given by one informant who spent a year in Pyongyang as a Soviet exchange student, private telephone lines in apartments were not unusual in the capital, but were rare in peripheral cities and were a real luxury in rural areas.
Administrative, educational and industrial institutions as well as state business enterprises were sufficiently telephonised regardless of their location. Emulating Soviet patterns, high ranking officials of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) and North Korean government enjoyed privileged independent use of a special Ultra High Frequency (UHF) telephone service which was designed to enable important calls in which some extraordinary events or the top ruler's orders might be discussed.
It is not likely that some serious improvements in telecommunication technology and service could occur in North Korea after the shock of Kim Ilsung's death in July 1994 and successive years of devastating floods which plunged the whole country into unprecedented economic crisis. Persistent but not very effective attempts to boost the national economy required the immediate establishment of economic ties with foreign partners. In these new conditions, the communication problem has inevitably arisen.
Although every state-run enterprise and institution in DPRK had its own (proudly mentioned in their business cards) telephone and fax number, it was practically impossible to get in touch with them by direct call or a fax message. Despite all its imperfections and inconveniences the only way for urgent communication was Telex. This comparatively archaic means of communication preserved one important advantage for the controlling organs - the ability to control and interfere.
Both the world and the regime needed a more sophisticated method of communication. On 29 November 1995, in addition to the telephone hot-line established in the early 1970s to connect Pyongyang and Seoul, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sought to facilitate communication between the DPRK leadership and the UN headquarters in New York. The appointed UN representative in Pyongyang, G. Faruq Achikzad, set up regular (2-3 times a day) E-mail contacts apparently via satellite. However, nobody could get in touch with North Korea without personal permission of the UNDP representative, and this way of communication still remains exclusive.
Persistent attempts to receive and send data through the North Korean telephone network were undertaken by a Japanese video camera operator Tatsuo Sakai. Within the last five years he has visited DPRK dozens of times and developed a strong attachment to this country which reminded him "...of the countryside in China. The living standard in North Korea is not comparable with that of Japan today. Rather, it is similar to that of my childhood in Japan about 40 years ago."
In December 1996 he returned to Japan and set up one of the most fascinating sites on North Korea. Lamenting technical problems, Tatsuo Sakai wrote in the introductory page: "I tried to access a Tokyo internet server from Pyongyang in June of last year in vain. The telephone connection was so poor that I was unable to connect. The Tokyo BBS can be accessed with a 2400 bps modem but the Pyongyang modem could only connect at less than a quarter of that. My company has an office in Pyongyang and I hoped to distribute some information but failed. I can see why the internet is virtually non-existent in North Korea. By the way, I can connect to the internet at 14,400 bps from a hotel room in Beijing."
Tatsuo Sakai's home page, entitled The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Welcomes You!, opens with the words: "This was made with point of view of Japanese businessman. This is not Official Homepage of DPRK". However, it is believed that the site was directly sponsored by North Korea or its sympathisers in Japan. (KWW editor: Mr. Sakai works for the Kumgang International of Mrs. Park, a Korean-American business woman. Mr. Sakai's web is actually located in America, virtual-hosted by an American ISP.).
From the outset, this site has only English and Japanese versions and is primarily addressed to curious foreigners. The bulk of the materials provided are North Korean tourist information, popular music, and short video clips. Created by means of the latest multimedia technologies, these materials are the most amazing hybrid of Kimilsungist propaganda and tourism attraction.
Probably, it is this exotica of the Communist past that has inspired many people to visit countries such as China, Russia and now North Korea. Pyongyang promptly realised that the web page is a perfect tool to raise revenue from tourism. Within the first four months Tatsuo Sakai's site was visited by 67,000 internet users; currently this number is more than 200,000.
Escalating their activities on the internet, DPRK soon managed to use as information vehicles certain foreign (US, Canada and Australia located) sites which primarily focus on Korean peninsula issues. Often, these sites were not designed to advertise DPRK's political views, but nevertheless turned to be very helpful in advertising newly proposed business opportunities.
For instance, a speech of Kim Jong'u (Chairman of the DPRK Committee for the Promotion of Economic Cooperation) which was delivered at the seminar convened 13-15 October 1996 to attract foreign investment to the Rajin-Songbong Free Economic Zone, appeared 10 days later on the internet site published by Korea WebWeekly - DPRK Home Page - a US based site which serves news and information on both Koreas. (KWW Editor's note: excerpts of Kim Jong U's official address were reported by US news services on the same day. The full text in English was air-mailed to us by a Japanese journalist.).
It became clear that North Korea was earnestly interested in the opportunities the internet, as the most advanced form of information exchange, could provide. The preparation for opening an DPRK official site began.
This project, as every other plan in the DPRK, was shrouded in mystery and was full of misleading actions. Rumours that North Korea was ready to open its official web page originated from the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun article which in October 1996 quoted an alleged information source in Tokyo. This news was confirmed by officials of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) and US intelligence services which said that the KCNA would celebrate its 50th anniversary (5 December 1996) by launching its official web site. However, as DPRK did not have excess to the internet, the site was believed to be opened in Japan by the Korean News Service (KNS) - the Tokyo bureau of KCNA.
5 December 1996 came and went, but no KCNA web appeared. North Korean officials said that the Yomiuri report was nothing but a 'joke' fabricated by South Korea. Lee Yangsu, Vice Editor in Chief of the KNS, said: "The news is incorrect. I think the news came from South Korea. It's a lie." The confusion dissipated somewhat when he said that all the news reports were a little premature; "We have a chief bureau in Pyongyang. So far it is not decided if we will use the internet. We are receiving the English news every day from Pyongyang."
Lee Yangsu also complained, saying: "Someone is using KCNA news on the internet. We know because we discovered the page yesterday when someone said we had already started. Now we are investigating who is putting it up there but it is complicated."
Initially, the regular publication of official North Korean news on the internet was undertaken by Kimsoft through its Korea WebWeekly site. This US based group had been receiving separate data from Japanese sources, American governmental agencies, and private citizens who scrupulously monitored daily programmes of Pyongyang Radio in English. (KWW Editor's note: we received KCNA news articles from the following sources: a German University radio station, American short-wave radio fans, the US Embassy in Seoul and certain US intelligence services.").
Of course, the quality of these transcripts entirely depended on the reception conditions and auditory abilities of the operator. Nevertheless, for nearly a year Kimsoft was the only vehicle for North Korean office information in the internet. In December 1996, Korea WebWeekly stopped posting Pyongyang Radio news in anticipation of the impending KCNA web.
It was the Korea WebWeekly's editor who subsequently guessed that the delay in the opening of the official site was apparently due to the different views of the KCNA and Choson Simbo as to the degree of ideological correctness to govern the site; KCNA pushed for a hard-line site whereas Chongryon officials wanted an American-style news web site. Whatever the reason, the eventual appearance of DPRK on cyber stage occurred in early January 1997 when KCNA started posting its official news through the KNA office in Tokyo on a regular basis.
The first scandal broke out in June 1996. While alarmed South Koreans were still discussing the possible consequences of blatant North Korean propaganda on the internet, a Canadian student David Burgess (Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan) set up a personal homepage, perhaps impressed by a recent trip to North Korea. This page caused him a lot of trouble because it carried a portrait of Kim Ilsung and some eulogising exclamations such as, "Long Live Great Leader Comrade Kim Jongil!" Such frivolous parody was taken very seriously in ROK. The site was immediately outlawed, access to it from all domestic servers denied, and soon Burgess was forced to shut it down under pressure from the Korean government.
In order to reduce the chance of subversive materials being published, major South Korean internet Service Providers (ISP), HiTEL, Nownuri, and Chollian have elaborated their own censorship criteria. They could censor, delete and restrict articles in their computer systems as well as deny their users access, but they were not liable for materials posted by their users. For this purpose, the Information & Communication Ethics Committee (ICEC) was established in 1995, in accordance with Article 13 of the Electronic Communication Business Law.
The ICEC also obtained rating rights, which the Minister of Communication used to force the domestic ISP to delete and restrict sites somehow deemed undesirable. The actual function of this office was not the rating of sites but rather the censorship of internet materials. In December 1996, the ICEC ordered all fourteen South Korean ISPs to deny access to any pro-North Korean site appearing on the global web.
Human rights organisations and public organisations for freedom of speech and privacy rights on the internet immediately expressed their deep concern. "Computer communication is the interactive, asynchronous (narrow cast) and real time transmission of information over regions and time zones. This gives us the opportunity to use data from Korea and other countries and to communicate easily with other associations. Many companies and political parties believe that computer communication is a path to 'tele-democracy'. However, this possibility can be realised only when freedom of speech is guaranteed, and certain Korean government actions make this impossible," said Kim Youngsik, one activist.
Indeed, the current ROK National Security Law (NSL) includes Article 7, which refers to Praising or Sympathising: "Sentence up to 7 years in prison for those who praise, encourage, disseminate or cooperate with anti-government groups, members or those under their control, ... for those who create, import, copy, possess, transport, distribute, sell, or acquire documents, arts or other publications for the purpose of committing acts as defined." On that basis, it is still illegal in ROK to listen to North Korean radio, watch North Korean television or approach North Korean or pro-North Korean web sites. Anyone can be imprisoned for speaking out in favour of the North Korean system.
ROK National Security Planing Agency (NSPA) and related agencies monitor online services. Under NSL, one could be arrested for posting materials and political views through the internet if they are deemed 'dangerous'. Ironically, the 'restricted' articles may be published legally in books or journals (since the early 1990s ROK book stores offer reprinted copies of special literature published in DPRK).
Suspicious contacts in the internet also might cause imprisonment. For example, a South Korean student coming in contact (by E-mail or through a online chat-room) with an overseas student from DPRK, must report this encounter to a ROK police office within 7 days. Explaining the reason for this regulation Lt General Park Yong'ok, the assistant Defence Minister, stated: "If we don't do anything about North Korean propaganda, then maybe our high school or university students will be ill-informed by their articles. Ordinary people do not have the information and knowledge and understanding to know what is wrong and what is good."
Even an innocent reader, who has accidentally come across a forbidden site, could potentially be accused of and prosecuted for collaboration with the enemy. "Those users of the domestic internet service companies who often and persistently approach subversive North Korean sites, will be traced and prosecuted," warned the Chief of Security Department of the Seoul District Prosecutor's Office.
It is a matter of fact that there is no way to prevent access to an internet site merely by censoring domestic providers. As long as access to the global net is free, there is always the possibility of accessing a forbidden page via links offered by numerous foreign providers. Therefore, some South Koreans (predominantly high school and university students) persistently search the net looking for outlawed sites.
Consequently South Korean police are quick to arrest them, confiscating their computers, printers, modems and other equipment. Once these youngsters are caught, they are usually tried and found guilty. But the great majority of ROK internet users are obedient and do not tempt providence. In reality, South Koreans just voluntary resign themselves from any interest in the North Korean presence in the cyberspace. Therefore, the 43 million people to whom these sites were actually addressed still have no opportunity to taste the fruits of the Juche-style symbiosis of technology and ideology.
However, after the accession of the 'leftist' Kim Daejung to the presidential post there has been a dramatic change in the general attitude towards DPRK. In April 1998, the government announced plan to lift the ban on North Korean TV and radio programs. Kang Induk, the Minister of Unification, told that he personally sees no problem in permitting North Korean broadcasts because South Koreans have matured ideologically enough not to be influenced by Communist propaganda. Although such developments sound very promising, no concrete steps have been taken to fulfil the plan. According to a leading public communications expert, this inaction is not surprising considering the political purposes for which past governments have made such proposals.
It is remarkable that in May 1998 the ROK top intelligence agency also declared that it would no longer commit acts of torture, violate human rights and intervene in political affairs. In a report to ROK President Kim Daejung, the National Security Planning Agency (NSPA) pledged that it would never abuse the National Security Law for political purposes, adding that its anti-spy probes would be conducted in strict compliance with the law.
NSPA Director Lee Jongchan noted that minor violations of the stern security law, such as eulogising the DPRK or failing to report contacts with DPRK citizens, will be referred to the public prosecutor or to the police. He added that these 'minor' violators of the anti-spy act will not be jailed in principle, and that the NSPA will also adopt scientific and rational investigation methods so as not to bully spy suspects through torture.
For example, following the KCNA, Choson Sinbo Company started regular publication of The People's Korea newspaper in July 1997, sponsored by the pro-North Korean General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. Addressing their congratulations to the Choson Sinbo Company, the Permanent Mission of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the UN Office at Geneva wrote: "The deep-going and interesting news of The People's Korea will be further rapidly transmitted to many more peoples of the world, thanks to its establishment of the home page in the internet".
From the outset, the news and editorials of Peoples Korea on the net predominantly targeted foreign audiences and Korean compatriots overseas. Only after a year of operation in English and Japanese, Choson Sinbo offered a Korean language edition, significantly expanding the circle of their readers. KCNA pursued the same policy, creating a Korean version of their original home page. However, the content and the style of materials posted by those two companies is different.
In contrast, the KCNA and the Choson Sinbo internet sites are profoundly different in terms of language style and interpretation of materials. The news and articles published by the former is full of Juche propaganda, blunt eulogy of Great Leader, and popularisation of questionable DPRK achievements. The design of the page is unsophisticated and the only entertaining feature (which has not changed for almost a year) is a photo of Mangyongdae - the birth place of Kim Ilsung. For its first six months, misprints and English spelling mistakes were very common on this site.
The Choson Sinbo publications on the internet differ significantly from the KCNA ones in its moderate language (both English and Korean) and its strong desire to win over foreign investors' to North Korea. Often quoting materials from foreign (including even South Korean) press and providing links to some independent internet sites (to Korea WebWeekly, etc), Choson Sinbo looks modern and less ideologically assigned than its North Korean counterpart. Those North Korea watchers who seek an alternative interpretation of current Korean issues might be attracted by various materials, designed for different age and social groups (The People's Korea, Io Magazine, Choson Sinbo, and other sites).
As for the KCNA news, one familiar with Korean script can find much more interesting material than is offered in English or Japanese by Choson Sinbo; this includes a list of Rodong Sinmun articles - an organ of the North Korean Workers' Party - published after December 1996; a list of historical documents illuminating the DPRK unification policy; information on the Rajin-Songbong Free Economic Zone development; DPRK taxation regulation; foremost works of the North Korean leader Kim Jongil.
The writings of the General Secretary are usually published in full on the internet and constitute a core of certain pro-North Korean pages. The unsuccessful experience of the Canadian student has been attempted in Australia. The Australian Center for the Study of Kim Jongil's Works was founded in Brisbane (Queensland) on 16 February 1998 to commemorate "the auspicious birthday of the Great Leader General Secretary Kim Jongil.
Also to mark the 56th birthday of the respected supreme commander General Secretary Kim Jongil, the Australian Centre established a home page on the internet exclusively devoted to the Great Leader." A huge portrait of the General Secretary (obviously a replica from Burgess' site) opens the home page of the Australian Centre. It is stated that the purpose of the Centre, which operates a lending library and sponsors ongoing research into the writings of Kim Jongil, is "to encourage study and promotion of the works of Kim Jongil with particular attention to his major philosophical writings."
This page is perhaps the only intellectual product which is freely offered by North Korea on the internet. All other information from the hermit Stalinist nation is scrupulously rationed and ideologically assigned. This gives quite a strange impression of DPRK's goals in the cyberspace. On the one hand, Pyongyang seems eager to establish close economic relations with potential investors. On the other hand, North Korea does its utmost to prevent normal communication with the outer world, concealing all information about the real situation in the country.
This discrepancy becomes even clearer when domestic North Korean press publications are compared to official Pyongyang statements addressed to foreign audience. Time and money is spent by Choson Sinbo aimed at convincing internet readers that DPRK is heading towards possible compromise and economic integration with the world community. On the other hand, KCNA regularly posts on the internet signed articles and editorials from the domestic DPRK press which unequivocally condemns the very idea of economic globalisation and the 'fallacious' principles of global society.
An article from Minju Choson (the second largest newspaper in DPRK) reveals the officially adopted tone. It accuses that that the internet and the technological push towards global society is yet another imperialist conspiracy to exploit developing nations for their own capitalist ends: "The imperialists are advertising that economic 'globalisation' is beneficial to the economic development of the developing countries. [...] They are also alleging that the economic 'globalisation' fosters free competitions among countries and nations in all markets and brings beneficial things to the development of the national economy of each country. But, their allegation is an unrealistic sophism.. "
Rodong Sinmun echoes this sentiment: "The essence of the 'open world society' on the lips of the United States and other western nations is a de facto variant of 'cosmopolitanism' which failed after its emergence in the world. It is aimed at domination and subjugation. [...Their] call for a 'global structure' [...] far surpasses 'cosmopolitanism' in its viciousness..."
These two rally cries, promptly delivered to the net users by KCNA, could easily destroy the illusory impression that DPRK is going to be more open to the world. The opportunity to post and receive materials through the internet was monopolised and utilised by the Pyongyang regime for whom the internet is just a sophisticated vehicle to carry out daily propaganda and dezinformatsya.
In reality, North Korea is firmly against repeating the doleful experience of the Soviet Union following Perestroika and Glasnost, or emulating the People's Republic of China by undertaking serious foreign-oriented economic reform. Not even a tiny indication of such developments is apparent. So far, the North Korean appearance in the cyber stage has been nothing but a curious melding of the outdated Communist regime with the technologies of the future millennium.