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

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

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.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs