The Korea Herald


Quiet digital revolution under way in North Korea

By 박한나

Published : July 25, 2011 - 12:24

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 PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- As his right hand grips the mouse, the physics major's eyes are fixed on a flat-screen monitor labeled with a red sticker reminding him the computer was a gift from Kim Jong Il.

People work on library computers at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea is undergoing a digital revolution of sorts, even as it holds some of the strictest cyberspace policies in the world. (AP-Yonhap News) People work on library computers at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea is undergoing a digital revolution of sorts, even as it holds some of the strictest cyberspace policies in the world. (AP-Yonhap News)
A woman works on a library computer at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP-Yonhap News) A woman works on a library computer at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP-Yonhap News)

People work on library computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP-Yonhap News)

People work on library computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP-Yonhap News)

Kim Nam Il says he prefers learning online to studying from books, and in that sense, the 21-year-old is just like other university students the world over.

North Korea is undergoing its own digital revolution, even as it grapples with chronic shortages of food and fuel. It is still among the most isolated of nations, with cyberspace policies considered among the most restrictive in the world. Yet inside Pyongyang, there is a small but growing digital world, and a whole new vocabulary to go with it: CNC, e-libraries, IT, an operating system called Red Star and a Web portal called Naenara.

In a world ever-wary of the unpredictable nation's motives, some see in North Korea's bid to train a generation of computer experts the specter of hackers launching attacks on the defense systems of rival governments. Others see the push to computerize factories and develop IT expertise as a political campaign designed to promote Kim Jong Un, the reputedly tech-savvy, Swiss-educated son being groomed to succeed his father as North Korea's next leader.

The country remains one of the hardest to penetrate by email, phone, or Internet. Still, there are signs of curiosity about the wired world outside.

Interest in computers and technology is not new for North Korea. According to local lore, leader Kim Jong Il once said there are three types of fools in the 21st century: those who smoke, those who do not appreciate music and those who cannot use computers. At the close of a historic 2000 meeting with then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he asked for her email address.

North Korea's biggest IT hub, the state-run Korea Computer Center, has been around since 1990 and has expanded across the country and into Germany, China, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, according to the company.

Since then, North Korean IT firms have quietly developed software for banks in the Middle East, applications for cell phone makers in Japan and South Korea and even video games for Nintendo and Playstation, said Paul Tjia, a Dutch IT consultant who has been working with North Korean companies for years.

The U.S. bans the export to North Korea of luxury items such as iPhones and iPads. But North Korean programmers working for Nosotek, a software joint venture in Pyongyang managed by Westerners, have developed games for Facebook, the iPhone and iPad, Wii and BlackBerry, company president Volker Eloesser said by e-mail.

Computer use does not appear widespread yet in North Korea, where power is scarce and most of the country remains analog. It still is the domain of the privileged in Pyongyang, and aside from top government officials, most have access only to the country's internal Intranet network, not the strictly allocated global Internet.

But inside the cocoon of computer labs and IT centers, young North Koreans are well-versed in programming, Tjia said.

``The knowledge available in the country is in many cases up to the Western level,'' he said, adding that those who need extra training are routinely sent to India and other countries.

Increasingly, North Korea is getting on the World Wide Web.

Last year, North Koreans created a buzz by opening accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube with the handle ``Uriminzok,'' Korean for ``our people.''

Flag carrier Air Koryo does not have a website, but it does have a Facebook page with 1,200 fans and engages in lively, humorous discussions with followers while dispensing advice on travel and visas.

This month, one Facebook user asked if Air Koryo offered online check-in.

``You kidding right?'' Air Koryo responded. ``There are many things to do before even looking at `Online check-in' such as actually creating a website.''

Strengthening science and technology to build up the economy has been a national creed and government mission since the countdown began in 2009 toward the milestone 100th anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung's birth.

A new, often-cited slogan has emerged: ``Breaking through the cutting edge.'' And in this year's New Year's editorial, the government emphasized the importance of science and technology in this ``IT era.''

Last year, references to ``CNC,'' computer numerical control, began popping up regularly in state media, on propaganda posters, on T-shirts and in the latest rendition of the Arirang mass games. Everything from pencils to sandals are being churned out at top speed, thanks to CNC, according to state media.

It even has its own ode: ``Song of CNC,'' said Kim Hyang, a guide at the Three Revolution Exhibition Hall, where products made with CNC are displayed. Asked to hum a few bars, he laughed and demurred.

To the West, computer automation at factories, around since the 1960s, may not seem so novel. But for North Korea, it is a catchphrase for modernization and a rare instance of English creeping into a staunchly Korean vocabulary. It's a word that has a trendy feel rolling off the tongue.

Modern, high-tech, international, cutting edge: they all are virtues befitting a young, little-known future leader who is described as a tech-savvy military genius by his loyalists.

``It gives them something to praise him for,'' said Brian Myers, a professor of international studies who focuses on North Korean propaganda. ``Kim Il Sung came to power as a military legend, and Kim Jong Il did, too. What I would do in their position would be to link (Jong Un) to technical innovation.''

South Korean officials suspect more strategic military motivations are behind North Korea's zeal to train the next generation of computer experts.

For nearly 60 years, the Korean peninsula has remained in a technical state of war, divided into the communist north and the U.S.-backed capitalist south. Although both sides signed a truce in 1953, tensions persist.

In 2009, unidentified hackers waged a denial-of-service cyberattack on a host of U.S. and South Korean government sites, including those for the White House, Pentagon, presidential Blue House in Seoul and South Korean Defense Ministry. In a simple but effective ploy, the hackers flooded the websites with useless requests, slowing them down or knocking them offline.

A similar but more sophisticated attack this March targeted 40 South Korean government, military and civilian sites, as well as websites linked to the U.S. military in South Korea -- including 14 of the same sites hacked in 2009 attack.

``North Korea is strategically nurturing its cyber warfare unit,'' Lt. Gen. Bae Deuk-shin, chief of South Korea's Defense Security Command, told a computer security forum in Seoul this month.

North Korea's Ministry of the People's Armed Forces denies involvement, calling the allegations ``absurd.''

The culprit is difficult to nail down, but North Korea or its sympathizers are likely, Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research at computer-security software maker McAfee Inc. told The Associated Press.

The purpose: to test the U.S. and South Korean defenses and reaction, a recent McAfee study said.

``Knowing that would be invaluable in a possible future armed confrontation on the peninsula, since cyberspace already has become the fifth battlespace dimension, in addition to land, air, sea, and space,'' the report said.

Computer education begins as early as primary school for Pyongyang's elite.

At the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace, where students perfect their singing, dancing, taekwondo, calligraphy and drawing, one boy is playing a game that tests his typing skills on a computer that glows beneath portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. So far, he has 41 of 61 characters right.

Another has Adobe Photoshop open and is working on adding text to a JPEG image. ``There's no Stopping Progress,'' his sentence reads, superimposed on an image of Windows XP.

At the computer lab at the Grand People's Study House, the ornate main library overlooking Kim Il Sung Plaza, every single desk with a Dell computer is occupied, the tap of keyboards the only noise breaking the silence.

Typing in on Internet Explorer goes nowhere, but it is easy to find Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party newspaper, on the Naenara (``My country'') portal.

At Kim Il Sung University, North Korea's top university, many of the classrooms may not have heat in winter but the building housing a new e-library that opened last year is state of the art.

Students neatly turned out in dark blazers and red ties sit quietly before terminals outfitted with HP computers. They have 2.8 million books from around the world at their disposal online, including English-language textbooks by U.S. publisher McGraw-Hill.

Washington bans the export of computers and software to North Korea from the United States, and Dell policy forbids the export and re-export of its goods to the country. However, both Dell and HP have factories in China, North Korea's main trading partner.

Inside a classroom, students take notes on computers as a lecturer instructs them on Linux programming. On the walls, 3Com wireless routers beam the Intranet throughout the building. The catchphrase on campus is ``roka'' -- short for ``remote controlled'' -- education. Lectures in ``roka'' classrooms can be transmitted in real time across the campus via webcam, said Ryang Myong Hui, a university tour guide.

Competition to study computer science at North Korea's top universities is fierce, Tjia said.

``For North Korea, IT is one of the hot new topics,'' he said. ``Not because it's new but because it gives new career options, including the option to work abroad and to work for foreign companies.''

Kim Nam Il, the physics student, is completely at ease navigating his way around Red Star 2.0, North Korea's homegrown operating system.

He writes emails, plays video games and listens to music online. He spends three to four hours a day at the computer lab, he says.

And then he goes home -- and gets right back online.

<한글 기사>

"北은 조용한 디지털 혁명中"

각급 교육기관 첨단시설 갖춰, 젊은이 컴퓨터는 기본

북한이 현재 조용한 디지털 혁명과정을 겪는 가 운데 컴퓨터를 잘 다루는 젊은이를 곳곳에서 찾아볼 수 있다고 AP통신이 25일 보도 했다.

또 북한은 자체 컴퓨터 운영프로그램과 수치제어 시스템을 개발해 선전하고 공식 포털사이트와 트위터를 개설하는가 하면 김일성 종합대학과 평양 인민대학습당 등 각급 교육시설에는 첨단 IT시설이 잘 갖춰져 있는 것으로 드러났다.

그러나 인터넷 접속은 아직 제한적이며 북한의 젊은이들은 인트라넷을 통해 자체 사이트에만 접속이 가능한 상황이다.

통신은 평양에 종합지국 개설을 계기로 내보낸 북한 특집기사 시리즈의 2번째로 이날 북한의 IT 발전상을 이같이 전했다.

김일성 종합대학의 물리학도인 김남일(21)군은 오른손에 마우스를 붙잡고 김정일 장군이 선물했다는 스티커가 붙은 평면 모니터를 예의주시하고 있었다.

김군은 전세계 다른 젊은이들처럼 책으로 공부하는 것보다 온라인에서 배우는 것을 더 좋아한다고 AP 취재진에게 말했다.

그는 북한이 자체개발한 컴퓨터 운영프로그램 '붉은별'을 자유자재로 다루면서 이메일을 쓰고 비디오게임을 하고 온라인으로 음악을 듣고 있었다.

그는 보통 하루에 학교 컴퓨터 실습실에서 3~4시간을 보낸다.

통신은 전 세계에서 가장 고립된 북한이 만성적인 식량과 에너지 부족에 시달리 면서도 이처럼 자체적인 조용한 디지털 혁명을 겪고 있다고 전했다.

그러면서 CNC(컴퓨터수치제어)와 e-라이브러리, 붉은별, 공식 포털사이트 '내나 라' 등 IT 발전 덕분에 이전에는 볼 수 없는 신조어들이 속속 등장하고 있다는 점을 강조했다.

취재진이 방문한 평양의 3개 혁명기념관에는 CNC로 만든 제품들이 전시되고 있었고 만경대 학생소년궁에서 만난 어린이들은 컴퓨터 교육을 열심히 받고 있었다.

또 평양인민대학습당에서도 미국의 델 컴퓨터로 타자 연습을 하는 학생들을 쉽게 찾아볼 수 있었다.

컴퓨터와 IT에 대한 관심은 북한에서 완전히 새로운 것만은 아니다.

북한에서 전해지는 바로는 김정일 국방위원장이 21세기의 3대 바보로 담배 피우 는 사람과 음악을 이해 못 하는 사람, 컴퓨터를 쓸 줄 모르는 사람을 꼽았다는 것이 다.

또 2000년 매들린 올브라이트 당시 미국 국무장관에게 김정일 위원장이 이메일 주소를 물었다는 일화도 있다.

북한의 최대 IT허브는 1990년 이후 개발이 시작돼 독일, 중국, 시리아, 아랍에미리트(UAE) 등으로 확장됐다.

북한과 수년간 합작해 온 네덜란드 IT 컨설팅 기업의 폴 치아 사장은 "북한의 I T 회사들은 중동의 은행을 위한 소프트웨어를 비롯해 한국, 일본 휴대전화 회사를 위한 애플리케이션, 닌텐도, 플레이스테이션 등 비디오 게임용 소프트웨어 등을 개발할 정도로 수준이 높았다"고 전했다.

치아 사장은 북한 젊은이들은 컴퓨터 프로그램에도 능숙하다면서 이들의 IT지식 은 서방의 수준에 육박한다면서 교육이 필요한 젊은이는 인도 등 다른 나라로 파견돼 육성된다고 말했다.

아직 인트라넷이 대세이지만 인터넷 접근의 폭도 조금씩 넓어지고 있다.

지난해 북한의 대남선전 사이트 '우리민족'끼리는 트위터 계정을 만들었고 국적 항공사인 고려항공이 만든 페이스북 계정에는 각종 문의가 쇄도하고 있다는 것이다.

통신은 현대화와 국제화, 최첨단 등의 단어는 북한 젊은이들 사이에서 갖춰야 할 덕목으로 꼽힌다고 전했다.

북한이 이처럼 IT에 공을 들이는 것을 두고 전문가들은 김일성, 김정일이 군사력을 바탕에 두고 권력을 장악했다면 젊은 세대인 김정은은 기술적 혁신이란 덕목을 강조하며 집권을 정당화하려는 의도가 있기 때문으로 분석한다.

통신은 또 북한이 최근 몇년간 한국의 국가기관과 금융기관 등에 광범위한 해킹 공격을 감행했다면서 컴퓨터 전문가 양성의 목적이 적대국가에 대한 방어시스템 공격에 있다고 의심하는 사람도 적지 않다고 지적했다.

통신은 전날 시리즈의 첫번째 기사로 인민복을 입은 어른과 '미키마우스' 캐릭터 가방을 멘 아이들로 대표되는 북한의 일상생활을 전하면서 "북한은 공개적으로 미국을 비난하지만 북한인의 일상의 삶은 미국으로 대표되는 서구를 지향하고 있다"고 소개한 바 있다. (연합뉴스)