Sunshine on the Digital DMZ

Brian Hicks

Updated April 24, 2007

Reunification has long been the watchword in Korean diplomacy. Even through the North’s recalcitrance, nuclear proliferation, missile-lobbing, and Viagra counterfeiting, the South has kept a sanguine smile. Make that a cyber-smile, as the Koreas connect in a new way this year.

South Korea’s official Yonhap News Agency reported this past weekend that the two Koreas will engage in an information technology (IT) seminar this October in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the North).

The gathering will be called the Unification IT Forum, and it will center on “closer cooperation in informatization,” according to reports.

Informatization? Maybe I missed something, but isn’t North Korea the Hermit Kingdom?

Well, if you think about it, North Korea’s longstanding isolation and padded-room lunacy has fostered quite a sophisticated elite of technocrats. With negative GDP growth and famine threatening almost every year, this September will mark the opening of the Pyongyang Science and Technology College, which is only the most recent milestone in the DPRK’s IT progress.

In October 2000, translators relayed a request from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Despite the tension of diplomatic talks between the platform-shoe wearing leader and the seasoned US ambassador, the entreaty could have taken place in any high school lunchroom:

“Can I have your email address?”

You see, Kim is reputed to be an Internet junkie. As one of the few people in his country with unfettered access to outside information, Kim has initiated the North’s major strides in connectivity in the past two decades. In 1990, he established the Korea Computer Center, putting at the helm his eldest son, Kim Jong-Nam.

Jong-Nam was also the chief of the State Safety and Security Agency at the time, betraying a perfectly expectable entanglement of that totalitarian state’s information technology with its desire to know everything that goes on inside–and outside–of its borders.

With about half a billion U.S. dollars in start-up money, the KCC has evolved to include a branch in Berlin, Germany, with the help of a German businessman who also established the government’s Kwangmyong web back home.


The point of the German service is servers. Because of laws like the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act and the Waasenaar Arrangement on dual-use (civilian/military) technologies, the German base for satellite transmission provides a handy way for Kim and others to shop for Rolexes and such from the comfort of their Pyongyang abodes.

Kwangmyong also serves government agencies and their internal communication, but for mere apparatchiks (to borrow a Soviet term for bureaucrats), use is limited strictly to work-related information. Sorry, no MySpace.

So given this extant utilitarian IT infrastructure, what are the goals of the “informatization” that may come from the October meeting?

The more immediate question is what can the South offer the North, and what models do we have for communist states and Internet use?

In terms of knowledge-sharing, North Korea could not ask for a better partner. South Korea is widely considered to be the country with the highest connectivity in the world. That is, more citizens are connected there, and at higher speeds, than anywhere else.

When under 1% of the population was online in 1995, the government in Seoul invested about $1.5 billion in subsidies and infrastructure to not only enable Internet access on a public scale but to put computers in homes all across the country.

Now, over 90% of South Korean homes have broadband Internet connections, at impressive bandwidth speeds that allow Internet telephony, streaming video, and other e-menities that are still prohibitively expensive for many Americans.

And with 20,000 Internet bars scattered in both the cities and countryside (much like the ones I saw in the boondocks of western China), everyone can get online somehow.

But the South has hosted the Olympics, it has companies listed on the NASDAQ, and its citizens can listed to Black Sabbath albums if they choose.

The North is no such place.

Somewhere in between these regimes is China, a country that is now communist in only the worst ways–corruption, surveillance, etc.–and capitalistic in many other aspects of its national life.

In China, the quest for “socialist advanced culture” has hedged against the deluge of pornography, political untidiness, and of course Ozzy Osbourne lyrics that Internet access brings.

Just this Monday, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced a new national attempt to cleanse Middle Kingdom modems of “unhealthy content.” With 26 million more Internet users already in 2007 than there were in 2006, order must be maintained for Beijing to keep a lid on the less desirable correlates of international commerce.

Case in point: The other day, I spoke to my friend Ben online. This would not be extraordinary, as most of my intra-office communication is done through instant messaging. But Ben is in China, where he works as a corporate anthropologist.

When I tried to send Ben a link to a music website, he couldn’t open it.

“Ah rats, it’s the Great Firewall of China!”

I personally experienced the yellow exclamation marks and logographic pop-ups of the Great Firewall during my stay in China, and I looked over my shoulder every time to make sure my transgression wasn’t being noted by the Internet bar administrator. But it may have been–I will never know.

And that is the wild card of connectivity in a country that tries desperately to dam the flow of ideas even though it has let the levees break. Limiting time online for Internet gaming addicts may seem smart to Chinese authorities, but such control would be unthinkable in the U.S.

In North Korea, movement towards “informatization” may have nothing to do with getting information or a sense of global citizenship to the proletariat. Technical prowess does not equal curiosity, and silicon chips do not create sunshine.

Only time will tell whether digital détente will have a real effect on the ground beyond the 38th parallel.



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