North Korea’s increasing use of communication technology, although restricted to loyal government supporters, may set the stage for “unprecedented” sharing of information that could lead to integration of the hermit kingdom into the rapidly expanding economies of Northeast Asia, an expert said Tuesday.
The Internet, intranet, and mobile phones—users of which have increased sharply in recent years—are a luxury reserved currently for the elite in North Korea, but spread of the technology has altered the way the repressive government controls information, according to Scott Bruce of the Washington-based East-West Center.
They can now “communicate in ways they have not been able to before” and this shift means that the North Korean government is “going to have to triage surveillance activities” because “the sheer number of conversations now exceeds the ability of the government to police them,” he said at a forum organized by the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute (KEI).
Despite high penalties for “transgression,” there is a potential for networks to develop and share information even if it is just between members of privileged classes,” he said.
“This creates a new space for nongovernmental actors that did not previously exist. Unmonitored networks can develop and share a range of data and media easier than ever before,” Bruce said.
“While penalties and social controls disincentivize these activities, space exists for networks to form in North Korea in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the state,” he said.
He predicted that over the next decade, a combination of market development, generational change, and information technology “has the potential to fundamentally alter the North Korean state and creates a strong incentive to integrate North Korea into the economies of Northeast Asia.”
When using government-approved technologies, North Koreans are becoming “information seekers,” Bruce said, combing through foreign, state-approved research on science and technology topics.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2012 proclaimed that information from the outside world should be harvested for development purposes, and such content is increasingly found on the country’s otherwise tightly restricted networks.
“While the technology is not likely to be a driver of social instability or unrest in the country, cell phones, the intranet, and the Internet facilitate the spread of social media and enable networks to form within the state that can be used for other purposes.”
North Korea’s isolation, its ban on foreign media and the small segment of elite individuals who are allowed access to technology has traditionally meant that the rogue state “is a place where optimistic dreams of information-driven liberalism will go to die,” Bruce said.
The regime has mitigated the threats to its existence by integrating the use of technology into its strong network of social controls and only allowing members of the state who have the greatest stake in its survival to make use of it, he said.
While cell phones are the most common information technology tools in North Korea, there are only around 2 million handsets in circulation, used by the country’s most elite 8 percent of the population, most of whom are members of the regime located in urban areas due to signal limitations and electricity shortages.
The phones are relatively expensive and plans cost around U.S. $14 per month, far beyond the means of the average North Korean, meaning that only the wealthy have access to the technology.
Only privileged North Koreans can make use of the country’s closed intranet system, and the network’s chat services and discussion boards are strictly monitored, while media is heavily screened.
Access to the global Internet is limited to a small number of university students who must apply to use it for research; businesses, such as tourism, aimed at bringing in hard currency to the North; military personnel charged with gathering information about other states; and North Koreans abroad representing consulates or working with international organizations.
Exceptions to the latter are an estimated dozen or so families of the North Korean “super elite” who have unfettered access to the Internet because they represent the state itself and are not considered a risk to the regime.
Bruce said that Pyongyang has focused on creating a closed-system, state-run network of cell phones and intranet in North Korea so that it can “pull the plug” if it sees the technology being used in a way that might threaten its hold on the country.
Additionally, he said, the launch of a regime-sponsored network has led to a corresponding crackdown on the use of unauthorized and unregulated technologies, meaning that most North Koreans are unlikely to risk their own safety to do so.
“The availability of mechanisms to undermine the state does not necessarily indicate interest in using them,” he said.
“Many North Koreans, including the elites, will see their future bound with the state as it exists today and view government control mechanisms as a positive force for security and stability in North Korea. Even if North Koreans hate the system, they have little to gain in undermining it in many circumstances.”
Engaging North Korea
Bruce cautioned that efforts by governments or NGOs to circumvent Pyongyang’s control by putting open technology in the hands of the people could create a backlash and cause the regime to take measures to further tighten controls on the sector.
“I think there is a strong desire to encourage change in North Korea by widening exposure to the outside world; however, overt attempts at this are likely to provoke a crackdown on the North Koreans who are targeted by it and ensure a shutdown of humanitarian channels with North Korea,” he said.
He also warned against merely encouraging the development of the technology sector in North Korea, saying that while doing this has the potential of leading to a long-term transformation of the state, investment is risky due to sanctions, weak governance, and a variety of other issues.
Instead, he suggested that governments and NGOs “engage” with the sector “to feed technical data that outlines best practices for economic development into the North Korean intranet.”
He said topics could include public health, best practices in agriculture, energy efficiency and development, and economic literacy and banking, and be presented through a closed network that could be monitored by the North Korean authorities for content.
“North Koreans, I think, would be very likely to respond well to this because it would allow them to control the information that is coming in. It would build contacts with the outside world while not opening the floodgates to a deluge of foreign media and topics,” he said.
“This at the same time would be successful, potentially, in supporting economic development in North Korea, building collaboration between the North and the outside world, and increasing the reliance on information technology within the [country].”