News / Asia

New Internet Regulations Provide Window into N. Korea

As of this week, foreigners living in and visiting North Korea can access Twitter, Facebook, and other social media on their mobile phones, providing what could be an unprecedented, real-time view of the notoriously isolated country.

A slow but steady stream of tweets and Instagram photos have already emerged since the mobile service provider Koryolink unveiled its apparently uncensored 3G network, setting up a rare direct connection with a country that remains a mystery to most outsiders.

The move came just weeks after North Korea unexpectedly announced it would allow foreigners to bring their own mobile phones into the country, after having previously required them to be left at customs upon crossing the border.

The changes represent rare reforms in what is considered the most closed country in the world. Some analysts say it provides at least a glimmer of hope that the country's new leader Kim Jong Un is open to gradually relaxing censorship.

But the expensive new mobile Internet service will only be available for the relatively small number of foreigners in North Korea, most of whom are constantly accompanied by government minders and only have access to pre-approved areas.

Could Change Perception of North Koreans

Much of the social media content that has surfaced so far has been ordinary. Reporters for the Associated Press, the first Western news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang, have posted photos depicting everyday life, including candid snapshots of locals playing billiards, fixing lunch, or heading to work in the capital.

Though mundane, analysts say the images could provide a more candid look at an extremely isolated North Korea population that is portrayed by state media as having an unwavering, cult-like devotion to the country's autocratic leaders.

"In my mind, one fairly positive thing that is going to happen is that people are going to see it as less of a freak show," says Gareth Johnson, manager and founder of Young Pioneer Tours, which regularly takes foreign visitors to North Korea. "I think people will start seeing Koreans a bit more like humans, which is a good thing, because they are humans."

A Sign of Things to Come?

Johnson, who has not yet used the Internet service, is optimistic that the move could signal further reforms, something many analysts had all but given up on following North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests. "I think you're going to see a gradual loosening up of things, just by necessity. Once you've let the genie out of the bottle, it's hard to put it back in," he said.

That view is shared cautiously by North Korea technology expert Martyn Williams. Even though he acknowledges the move does little to benefit North Koreans at the moment, he says the development could represent "one of those little cracks in the wall that surrounds North Korea, that eventually lets more information come in."

"If you look around the world, every time that new technology is adopted, especially in authoritarian countries, you'll be able to see that it was another nail in the coffin of censorship, another crack in the wall, so to speak," says Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech blog.

Williams says it could eventually be "something of a big deal," particularly if any of the Internet-enabled phones end up in the hands of North Koreans. But he says Pyongyang will be working hard to ensure that does not happen, likely by registering and tightly monitoring all Internet-enabled Koryolink SIM cards.

And, he says, North Korea would not hesitate to shut down the service if it ever posed a threat to its rule.

Impact of Reporting from North Korea

The new data service could also impact the way foreign journalists cover North Korea. According to Williams, having an Internet connection on a camera-equipped mobile phone means journalists can get around the restrictions posed by pesky government minders.

"It gives reporters the ability to take a picture and to send the picture immediately [to the Internet]," he says. "Even if someone says that you can't take that picture or that you have to delete it, you can say 'I'm sorry, it's already sent.' Or you can delete it, and it's already gone."

David Slatter, a Seoul-based writer for the website, admits that the new service may give reporters the ability to provide a more "uncut side" of North Korea. But he says its impact will be limited and the the fascination may wear off.

"I personally question how useful it will be in terms of North Korean reporting. At the moment, it seems very interesting. But in a few months, I do question how much these photos will really be covered if we just have the same handful of people inside Pyongyang tweeting about their lunch," says Slatter.

Service Will be Costly

Another factor that could limit the usefulness of the 3G service is its hefty price. According to an article in China's official Xinhua news agency, the Koryolink SIM card will cost $200. In addition, data will cost $200 for a modest 2 gigabytes.

Those prices could mean that even well-salaried foreigners working in and visiting North Korea may not be able to afford the service. Gareth Johnson, the tour manager, estimates that only around five percent of his customers will use the data plan.

"I don't think a lot will [use the service], but I think enough will," he says. "We've already had one customer approach us about his next trip, and he's like, 'Yep, make sure I get one, I want to be blogging now and be doing Instagram and Facebook.'"

Koryolink, a joint Egyptian-North Korean venture, stands to make "not an insignificant amount of money" from the service, according to Slatter, who says financial gain may have been a motivating factor.

But still, he calls the move surprising. "That someone will get photos they don't want them to see or that foreigners could leave these phones around or that technology could leak through to the North Koreans one way or another are quite a big risks," he says.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Stephan Santos
February 28, 2013 2:14 PM
Article title SHOULD read "N. Korea gets internet social media monitoring system online" because if they have people PHYSICALLY follow foreigners around, YOU KNOW they're going to be running ANY internet transmissions through their monitoring filters , then again, it's not like the good 'ol USA/NSA doesn't already do the same thing

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs