Officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea is just a little smaller than the state of Mississippi in the United States. During its existence, it has been ruled by three generations of the same family, the current leader being Kim Jong-un since 2011.
If our current relationship with North Korea has left you rattled and a little confused, you’re not alone. Admittedly, it’s difficult to know what to think of a country conducting nuclear missile tests just across the ocean. Everything we read about North Korea seems mysterious. This is especially true since this particular country has cut off most traditional communications with the outside world. It does leave us wondering how telecommunications are handled in such an isolated country.
The Background of Telecom in North Korea
So, how do communications work there? Due to its own policies, telecommunication in North Korea is highly regulated by the government. Even with our own imperfect knowledge of the country, this comes as no surprise. North Korea’s telecom covers basic broadcast, cellular, and telephone networks, but communications and service providers here are severely limited.
What kind of restrictions do they have? Well, radios only receive local, state-sponsored stations. There is no satellite television, and foreign newspapers are not allowed. In fact, much of the news, media, and information they receive is altered before reaching the people of North Korea, usually for the purpose of shaping their opinion of the United States, other countries, and the world at large. It’s a highly irregular and never before seen means of handling telecom.
Phone Lines and Internet Service
Phone and calling services are also vastly different than our own. To visitors in North Korea, phone service is expensive and difficult to get, though it is possible. Locals are completely prohibited from international calls, and especially from contacting friends or family members who have fled the country. This makes telecommunications in North Korea complicated and difficult. In fact, no internet existed in North Korea before the year 2003.
While in the United States, where landlines came before cell phones, North Korea has bypassed landlines completely in favor of cellular first. There is an estimated 3 million users with cell phones out of the country’s 25 million people. Connectivity first began when an Egyptian company, Orasom Telecom Holdings, set up North Korea’s very first 3G network in 2008 in the capital city of Pyongyang, an act that certainly turned heads on an international level. Ever since 2013, internet access has been available to visiting tourists through a service called Koryolink, which was launched through Orasom Telecom.
Telecommunications and Foreign Access
Earlier we alluded to the fact that this country is secretive, especially when it comes to outside communications. This begs the question: can we access it?
Let’s start with foreign leaders and representatives. Interestingly, North Korean embassies used to have Wi-Fi connectivity. Because of this it was suspected to be in use by citizens. In fact, there was a slight housing boom in the area of Pyongyang. Once this information came to light, Wi-Fi became banned at the embassies. International organizations must now request special permission to get it.
As for foreign journalists, they were first allowed access to the internet in general in 2010, where visitors can hop online while at hotels and airports. However, due to a country-wide internet policy change, North Korea blocked access to social media websites sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We assume this is for the purpose of discouraging posting and sharing events that occur in the country. South Korean websites are also banned completely.
In the last several years, we have been able to learn more and more about how North Korea’s telecommunications works. For instance, In 2016, it was discovered that North Korea has less than 30 websites available to the public. These are sites that end in the domain .kp, which is their unique country code. At last count, the United States speculated that were about 5,500 total websites. That’s quite a big difference!
North Korea’s National Intranet Service
It’s pretty well known that North Koreans use technology differently than most other countries. All that being said, no country is 100% cut off from telecommunications. There’s a small range of corporations that provide services to North Korea, including radio, TV, and internet. The last few years especially have seen a growth in the use of cell phones as well, with a 3G only network. Certain government leaders are even going so far as to encourage internet and cellphone use to keep a better “eye” on fellow citizens. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best use for network technologies. Mandatory software updates are designed for seek out illegal information sharing within the country.
Kwangmyong, launched in 2000, is North Korea’s national intranet service. High-ranking officials and few others get full, unrestricted access to the intranet. Their intranet is mostly used for work. Features include email, news coverage, and even a search engine function. Those who can afford it, for example the upper class, are also allowed access, but change is happening slowly.
Recently, the internet has been extended to universities, like Kim Il Sung University. However, users are also strongly supervised while online. Even today in 2017, North Korea’s digital footprint remains small.
The Future of Telecom in North Korea
As North Koreans continue to modernize their economy and make investments in the production of computers and cell phones, there is a potential for generating incredible revenue. Mobile subscribers are expected to increase in 2018, albeit the growth won’t be as fast as other neighboring countries. No other country on earth has created its own telecommunications infrastructure from scratch, and then keep it from the rest of the world. Instead of promoting growth and innovation in technology like other countries, North Korea seeks to isolate.
North Korea hasn’t spilled any secrets in terms of its own information technology. Development of their digital economy is notably slow. It’s honestly unclear what the future will bring, especially considering our current relationship with this country.