Over the past decade, the number of digital devices has increased in North Korea. About 50 to 80 percent of adults may now have cell phones, allowing them to text and call family members. However, the use of these phones is highly controlled – data speeds are slow, with the devices taking screenshots every few minutes and a code that allows only government-approved content to be displayed. And internet penetration is not nearly at the same level.
“North Korean people cannot use it, not because of the infrastructure or not because of the poor conditions in the country,” says Nam Bada, secretary general of Pscore and editor of the report. “It’s just because of government policy.”
A few dozen families linked to Kim Jong-Un and some foreigners have unrestricted access to the global internet, while “several thousand” people – including government officials, researchers and students studying computer science – can access a censored version. , according to the report and previous research. North Koreans like Kim who are allowed to travel abroad, usually for business, can sometimes access the global network while abroad.
Mitch Haszard, senior threat intelligence analyst at security firm Recorded Future, who has previously analyzed North Korea’s Internet traffic, says Chinese and Russian Internet service providers connect the country to the global network, and access by foreign visitors does some of what can can be seen from the outside. This may have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic when there were fewer foreigners in North Korea and its borders were closed.
According to multiple defections cited in the Pscore report, global Internet access is only available in certain locations and buildings inside North Korea. One person claimed that Internet connections at the National Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, were only available on the second floor, with only eight computers connected. According to them, about five people got to use it.
Another defector told Pscore researchers that when they were given permission to travel to Pyongyang to use the Internet, they tried to download medical research papers, but could only access the titles of the papers and the names of the authors. “I knew the concept of the global internet when I was in North Korea, but I didn’t know that so much information was exchanged through it,” said Shin Yong-Rok, another defector.
Martyn Williams is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and the 38 North Project who has extensively studied technology in North Korea but was not involved in the report. Williams says the testimony tracks with those of other defectors, but adds new details about the levels of surveillance people face. In general, Williams says, Internet access “appears to be available for officially approved uses, such as some universities, research institutions, and probably some trade organizations and other institutions.” University students interviewed by Williams have previously said they are required to state why they need to use the internet and are monitored when they go online.
Williams points to a 2020 North Korean law that stepped up the country’s efforts to prevent access to foreign information inside the country. In recent years, outside information – including TV shows and South Korean content – has been smuggled across the border using USB drives, giving people a glimpse of the outside world. “The new law provides for severe penalties, including death, for people caught with foreign information,” says Williams. (In 2021, it was reported that the man who smuggled copies of the dystopian Netflix thriller The squid game to North Korea and sold them under sentence of death.)