Dispelling Rumors About North Korea
1. “North Koreans don’t have access to the internet.”
Most people think that North Koreans are cut off from all forms of technology, but technology has actually slowly crept its way into the country in an extremely limited way.
North Korean’s access to the internet falls into three categories. The first is no access. At all. Nada. Most North Koreans fall into that category. If you went to North Korea and asked around about the internet, most people would have no clue what you were talking about.
North Korea has an officially sanctioned intranet called “Kwangmyong,” which is Korean for “bright star.” This “intranet” is a collection of networked servers and computers that are only accessible from inside North Korea’s borders. All we know about Kwangmyong we have learned from North Korean defectors, because even foreign visitors to the country aren’t allowed to access it.
Kwangmyong looks like what the regular internet did back in the 90’s. We’re talkin’ old school dial-up. It runs primitive email and web browser tools that only allow access to specific “sites” that have been copied from the real internet and placed on Kwangmyong. There are an estimated 1,000–5000 sites that are mostly news propaganda, educational and reference materials and scanned archives. So basically Kwangmyong is like a crappy, fake internet. Only about 10% of North Koreans are believed to have ever accessed it.
The government also strictly controls the code and design rules of the web pages on Kwangmyong. One of the rules is that every time Kim Jong Il’s, Kim Il Sung’s or Kim Jong Un’s names appear on a website their font has to be 20% larger than the rest of the text on the page.
To even get a computer in North Korea you have to get permission from the local government and register it, just like a handgun in some U.S. states. There is only one computer manufacturer in North Korea called Morning Panda, which is run by the government and only makes a few thousand computers every year. Outside computers are illegal (except for really high up government officials and the wealthiest citizens).
But why does such a repressive nation allow access to the internet? The answer revolves around the new demand for high-tech propaganda videos and images, as well as the need for internet access in order to carry out hacking operations.
Additionally, the internet is granted to the political elite not only as a reminder of their privileged nature, but also so that they can use the information regarding international activities to plan and carry out operations within North Korea.
The government believes that fear will keep the very small number of people who can access the real internet in line. In almost all cases when someone is accessing the internet their browsing activity is being monitored so they know that if they go look at something the government wouldn’t be happy about they’ll probably be caught.
2. “The Regime regularly executes citizens.”
North Korea’s criminal code says that someone can be sentenced to death for “crimes against the state” and “crimes against the people.” Those terms are super vague which basically means that the regime can execute people whenever they want arbitrarily.
At least 70 officials have been executed in the last four years. In April Kim Jong Un’s defense chief Hyon Yong Chol who was apparently executed because he fell asleep during an event attended by Kim. He wasn’t just executed, he was publicly executed by fire from an anti-aircraft gun — an extremely powerful machine gun that when directed at the human body at close range would completely obliterate that person. Satellite imagery and analysis actually might have caught this on camera.
Kim Jong Un also executed his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek. This was really unexpected because Thaek had been regarded as the second-most powerful figure under Kim Jong Un.
3. “North Korea is not an actual threat”
In terms of a nuclear threat to the U.S., no, at least not yet. While North Korea does have the ability to make nuclear weapons, as far as we know they don’t have the ability yet to send those weapons in a missile that could reach the U.S. Although they do not have the missile technology to shoot those weapons across the Pacific at the U.S. they do retain the capability to attack both South Korea and Japan, two close allies of ours. That’s a big deal because that kind of attack could lead to a regional war that America would have to get involved in because of our allies in the region.
In terms of a cyber security threat, yes, North Korea does pose a threat. North Korea has built up a cyber-army of a few thousand highly trained hackers. North Korea knows that in a real battle against South Korea or the U.S., they would lose, so their strategy is to build up their cyberwar divisions and attack the U.S. and South Korea over the web.
4. “The majority of North Koreans can’t leave North Korea”
It is illegal for a North Korean citizen to leave the country without explicit permission from the government, which is not easy to obtain. And North Koreans aren’t just restricted to traveling outside of the country. In order to travel within the country you must obtain permission from your employer and declare a specific reason for traveling. This restriction of movement has entrapped the North Korean population, and made it very difficult for defectors to escape the regime. In fact in 2008 during a period of extreme famine, Kim Jong Il issued an order to “shoot on site” any North Koreans attempting to flee. Even if a North Korean makes it to the border the borders are heavily guarded by North Korean and Chinese military. While China is obligated under international law to allow refugees to enter the country, the Chinese military justifies sending North Koreans refugees back to North Korea by calling them economic migrants, rather than classifying them as refugees.
5. “There is a lack of food and access to basic products.”
It’s widely known that North Korea has been plagued by a hunger epidemic due to its infertile land and economic policy. As many as one million people died in the 1990s due to starvation caused by the government’s economic policy as well as flooding. The government tried to improve the situation by creating a state food distribution program but that did almost nothing to improve things.
This widespread starvation has had a major impact on the health of the population. In fact, in 2012 the North Korean military made its minimum height requirement 4 feet 7 inches, the average height of a fourth grader in South Korea, showing how pervasive malnutrition has become the norm. In the region of Ryanggang, nearly half of the population is stunted in growth, and even in the most elite circles of North Korean society an estimated 1 in 5 children’s growth is stunted.
There is no access to basic products such as fruit and sweets such as chocolate. According to North Korea Tours, the country’s official tour company, “You can buy a box of fruit when you arrive in Beijing (you can get almost everything in Beijing) as there is not much fruit in DPRK.” Surprisingly, North Korea is a top exporter of fruits, but none of this reaches its population. There is an established black market, providing everything from cigarettes to pirated TV shows and western movies, as well as clothing, which are all highly coveted.
6. “If you’re caught with foreign DVDs or speak out against the regime, you can be sent to a prison camp.”
The North Korean regime denies the existence of prison camps, but through information from defectors and escapees from these camps we know that there are at least five known prison camps in North Korea estimated to house up to 120,000 North Koreans. In response to severe criticism a North Korean government official has recognized that they do use “reform through labor” camps, where people reflect on their wrongdoings and improve their mental state. These prison camps are also referred to as work camps, due to the forced labor and brutal treatment, often resulting in death. A citizen can be put in a prison camp for a number of reasons ranging from major crimes, to minor infractions such as owning illegal western movies, to even having a family members convicted of political crimes as their “blood is guilty”.
7. “North Korea is a completely isolated country.”
Many believe North Korea to be a shut off from the rest of the world, clinging stubbornly to a policy of isolationism. Though they don’t trade with the United States and a few other western countries, this isn’t very true. They remain close trading partners with China and Russia, send hundreds of students abroad for academic and occupational education, and allow many workers to work on abor projects abroad. North Korea also has been known to work with international companies to sell military technology and products as well as commission domestic construction projects from international companies. Though the state remains far more reclusive than most, they are not cut off from the international world of trade.