Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Internet Black Hole That Is North Korea

The tragically backward, sometimes absurdist hallmarks of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-il, are well known. There is Mr. Kim's Elton John eyeglasses and strangely whipped, cotton-candy hairdo.

North Korea is an impoverished country where televisions and radios are hard-wired to receive only government-controlled frequencies. Cell phones were banned outright in 2004. In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked North Korea No. 1—over also-rans like Burma, Syria and Uzbekistan—on its list of the "10 Most Censored Countries."

That would seem to leave the question of Internet access in North Korea moot. While other restrictive regimes have sought to find ways to limit the Internet—through filters and blocks and threats—North Korea has chosen to stay wholly off the grid.

Julien Pain, head of the Internet desk at Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group which tracks censorship around the world, put it more bluntly. "It is by far the worst Internet black hole," he said.

To the extent that students and researchers at universities and a few other lucky souls have access to computers, these are linked only to each other—that is, to a nationwide, closely-monitored Intranet—according to the OpenNet Initiative, a human rights project.

But how long can North Korea's leadership keep the country in the dark? Writing in The International Herald Tribune last year, Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, suggested that North Korea's ban on cell phones was being breached on the black market along China's border. And as more and more cell phones there become Web-enabled, she suggested, that might mean that a growing number of North Koreans, in addition to talking to family in the South, would be quietly raising digital periscopes from the depths.

[Excerpt of an article by Tom Zeller Jr., NY Times News Service]

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