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Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Surfing the Intranet
Wary North Korea shows rare glimpse of its relationship to the Internet

At the e-library in North Korea's Kim Il Sung University, rows of students sit quietly, their faces bathed in the glow of computer displays as they surf the Internet. Though it meticulously keeps its people isolated about the outside world, North Korea knows it must enter the information age to survive. The country has tried hard to keep its relationship to the Internet hidden from foreign eyes. But it opened that door just a crack recently to reveal a self-contained, tightly controlled Intranet called Kwangmyong, or "Bright."

North Korea thinks Bright is the authoritarian answer to the Internet. One of the first things an outside observer notices at Kim Il Sung U is that the students are actually studying, not wasting time on Facebook. In fact, the sites they surf most likely aren't even on the Internet, but on the North-Korea-only Bright.

On Bright, users navigate around an estimated 1,000 to 5,500 websites, mostly for universities, government offices, libraries and state-run corporations. North Korea is so secretive about the system, which it launched more than a decade ago, that it is off-limits to even the foreign technical advisers it brings in. It can be accessed only in the North. "I have never been allowed to use the Intranet," said Will Scott, a computer sciences instructor at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Through daily interactions with North Korean students, however, Scott has been able to glean a general outline of what Bright is all about. "The Intranet provides a connection between industry, universities and the government," he said. Graduate students and North Korean professors at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology are allowed to access the real Internet from a dedicated computer lab, although everyone's access is monitored.

Students' emails must be reviewed and approved by one of the vice presidents of the university before they can be sent, which, Scott said, means they rarely use email. "I think you would find a surprising lack of technical surveillance on the Intranet, due largely to the high level of self-censorship built into the collective psyche," he said.

Because of the population's lack of experience with the Internet, there is no clamor for change. Even some of the students at Kim Il Sung University said they see the Internet as a tool best used in moderation. "I use the Internet to look for English reference books," said Ri Jong Hyok, a 21-year-old math student. "But actually the national Intranet has most of the books I need, so I don't need to use it so much."

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