News / Asia

New Internet Regulations Provide Window into N. Korea

x
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 NKNews.org, 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

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs