Access to technological goods, such as mobile phones and computers, are in increasing demand in North Korea; and so even this closed society is seeing a growth in mobile phone usage and access to computers. Alongside this phenomenon, outside information that was previously smuggled in through DVDs are now carried on USB sticks.
Significantly, a new order based on information communications is being born, which contradicts the traditional order of things. The following account is based on regular and long-term correspondence with our sources in Pyongyang, who must remain anonymous.
The Rise of Computers in North Korea and its Impact on Youth
There are currently over 4 million computers distributed throughout North Korea. This is the sum total of both official and personal computers, at least half of which are situated in Pyongyang. Except for a very few privileged North Koreans, most have no internet access.
Instead, they have access to intranets. These include the ‘Gwangmyung Network’, ‘Changgwang Ntwork’, ‘Hwetbul network’ and ‘Chosun Information Exchange Network’. The primary content of these networks include deification of the Kims and regime propaganda.
There also exist communication tools such as chatting and mail, which allows for real-time information exchange.
Another interesting development has arisen as a result of wider access to computers in North Korea: the North Korean state have on various occasions been the target of hacking attempts carried out by North Korean youth.
The first computer virus was developed in North Korea around 1997. At the time, Microsoft were offering releases such as Visual C++ 5.0 (1997) and Visual C++ 6.0 (1998). But the North Korean state desired a uniform environment for development, as well as being constrained by hardware requirements. Thus MS-DOS was favored over Windows OS, and Turbo C++ (Borland) was preferred over Visual C++.
Nevertheless, various North Korean operations worked on developing viruses to be used for hacking abroad employed Visual C++ 5.0 and MASM 6.0.
The virus problem started when hacking began to be perceived as a desirable profession. Certain children of the elite studying for a computer programming degree had come to be interested in a working thesis written by operational officers; and the information slipped into the public domain.
At this time, the North Korean state did not envision the computer becoming as widespread as it is today and consequently, security had been loose. And as North Korea’s computer students – interested in viruses beyond their MS-DOS environment – analyzed the source code, new mutations came into being.
Among elite North Korean youth, there came to be mottos such as: ‘Developing viruses is the best way to secure important jobs’. Within North Korea, powerful institutions such as the Party and military began to compete in order to discover young programming talent.
In this environment, virus development is perceived as a road to power, and not as a crime. This is why a sizable number of elite North Korean youth are increasingly interested in virus development.
In the next part of this series, we exclusively unveil the official ‘Computer Programming Textbook’ used by gifted and talented North Korean students placed in the computer fast-stream program.