How to be smart in North Korea
Last year, when the world seemed on the brink of a nuclear war, my brother and I went to North Korea. As so many others, we had been exposed to the country almost daily through the news, or documentaries. The stories about concentration camps, mass surveillance, and a crazy leader known to execute his opponents with heavy military equipment were far from anything we had ever experienced as 90’s kids growing up in Scandinavia.
We repeatedly found ourselves left with more questions than answers, so we decided to go there and see for ourselves. We knew that visiting wouldn’t answer all our questions, but hoped it could provide us with a frame of reference.
Visiting the country proved to be quite easy. We decided to travel with Young Pioneer Tours, and they took care of everything from visa to train tickets, while promptly answering any questions we might have. From their large catalog of different tours, we decided on “The Real Deal Tour: DPRK”, which offer a rare view of the countryside, and what we hoped would be a more nuanced view of the country.
It was a ten day tour like nothing I’ve experienced before. It was, of course, highly orchestrated. The people we met and the places we saw had quite obviously been carefully selected to tell a story of prosperity and self-sufficiency, which is the bedrock of the political system and the raison d’etre of the Kim dynasty. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, they failed to hide the extreme poverty of the country. They could not hide the power-outages and the lack of running water, the ox-drawn carriages transporting farmers and withering crops, the old lady in the rice fields gathering grains left from the harvest for her family or the black market. Nor could they hide the rusting trains or streetcars of Chongjin, which once carried workers to the steel-plant. Or the peeled paint on the mascots of the Mount Chilbo national park. The poshest vinylon wasn’t chic enough to hide a forced smile at a post-dinner karaoke.
In true planned economy spirit the whole trip seemed to be set by clearly defined rules with no room for deviation. Kimchi had to be served at every meal, every bedroom had to be equipped with a fridge, and every stop in our itinerary had to be accompanied by a gift shop, often selling the same stuff as the last one. We were continuously offered to buy everything from celebratory ICBM-launch stamps to large wall-mounted rugs decorated with motifs of lions and other wildlife remarkably atypical for the region. My favourite souvenir however proved to be something that could not be bought in the gift-shops, namely a “locally produced” smartphone.
The Arirang 151 was released in 2016 and looks like a generic android phone. It has a camera, Bluetooth, 3G, 4GB internal storage, a MicroSD card and a micro-SIM card slot. What it does not have is WiFi, which makes sense, as I observed no WiFi hotspots on my own phone throughout my visit.
The operating system of the phone is a heavily modified version of Android 4.4.2. Besides custom loading screen and themes, the phone ships with a 500 MB promo video (interesting choice given 4GB of storage), and a lot of pre-installed apps, mostly games, including Super Mario, Plants vs. Zombies, five different versions of Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, etc. Since this phone is secondhand, a Huawei fitness tracker app has subsequently been installed. I observed several people using these trackers throughout my visit. Whether they wore them to tell the time, tell their fitness, or display their wealth I do not know, but allowing the wear of Chinese produced consumer electronics seems like an interesting choice for a regime so keen on DIY.
Besides games, the phone also has a app locker pre-installed, which should facilitate locking apps and “encryption” of text messages and contacts. It is however doubtable that this app-locker provides any more security than a simple screen-lock. The messages are most certainly not end-to-end encrypted and the apps are locked with a four digit access code. It is possible that the purpose of the locker is to give the user some false sense of privacy encouraging more liberated conversations.
However, the biggest difference to any standard smartphone wasn’t the custom apps or themes, but something that became apparent once I tried to connect the phone to anything. While I was able to make a connection with a computer via bluetooth, I couldn’t successfully exchange any information, and when I inserted a SIM card, the phone simply shut down. I managed to successfully communicate through USB and could transfer all content off the phone, but when I tried to transfer anything to the phone, the files would simply disappear when opened.
I was quite impressed by how much effort went in to preventing exchange of data with foreign devices. No wonder the phone was released with an already five year old operating system. While I refuse to believe that the hardware is produced in North Korea, these modifications might be locally made by North Korean programmers. North Korea has been known to execute cyberattacks, and when I introduced my profession as a programmer to the locals, they would sometimes mention that someone in their close family were working as a developer abroad.
Visiting a country that has been so isolated from the rest of the world since before the internet, was in itself bound to be interesting. To my surprise North Korea wasn’t the technological wasteland I imagined. All over the country we were proudly shown libraries filled with computers, supposedly all connected to the intranet and at free disposal to the citizens. With such an isolated and top-down structured country, it was obviously a prestige project driven by dictation rather than innovation. Making computers available to the population should supposedly have brought North Korea into “the information age” even though it lacked the most defining quality of this, namely the free flow of information.
The smartphones and fitness trackers differ from the computers in that they are personal and definitely not available to the general public. They are extremely expensive and only available to citizens with access to foreign currency, e.g. people working in the tourist industry. But people are using them, especially in Pyongyang, and there is some supporting infrastructure in place throughout the country.
Assuming that the smartphones are not just a tool used to impress visiting diplomats and tourists, their presence witnesses of some knowledge about the surrounding world and the technological advancement achieved in consumer electronics within the last 10 years. Close relations with China and smuggled South-Korean soap operas might have caused a consciousness and demand for smartphones, which the regime chose to meet. If this the case, then the country might not be as impregnable as one could assume.
We are of course still talking about devices produced and sanctioned by a omnipresent government, whose survival depends on knowing and controlling everything. But by giving its people the tools, and the expertise, to circumvent the security measures imposed by the government, they just might have created a media which they cannot control.