This analysis of North Korean internet usage is a fascinating glimpse at the behaviour of the country’s elite
I have some bad news about your mortality. Google has around 50 billion pages indexed: if you start now, unless there’s some phenomenal improvements to medical science, you’re not going to finish reading the whole web before you die. It’s flattering that this page is one your bucket list – I’ll try to make it worth your while.
There’s an easy mode to the internet reading challenge, though: move to North Korea. There are fewer pages accessible in North Korea than were created for Grand Theft Auto V – just 28 .kp domains in total, or roughly one website for every 892,857 citizens. But of course, a handful of said citizens aren’t limited to just 28 websites – it’s unclear exactly how many, but a new report from threat-intelligence specialists Recorded Future and Team Cymru has some fascinating insights on how a small handful of favoured North Koreans use the wider internet as we know it.
It seems that the lucky 0.1% uses the internet in much the same way that we do – they check social media, browse Amazon, stream videos and play online games. Despite reports that it’s blocked, Facebook is the preferred social network for the Pyongyang elite.
In fact, gaming and streaming accounted for 65% of non-filtered internet activity over the three months the country was monitored for. Youku, iTunes and BitTorrent services were the most popular sources for video and music, while free-to-play MMO World of Tanks was the game of choice.
These may seem like fairly irreverent observations, but there’s a handful of important conclusions to draw. The first is that the North Korean elite’s use of the internet is recreational in nature. That’s important because the hope was that by studying internet patterns, Western intelligence services would be able to infer when weapons tests would be undertaken – but for the period analysed, there was no correlation. “Our analysis does suggest that if there is a correlation between North Korean activity and missile tests, it is not telegraphed by leadership and ruling elite internet behavior,” the report says.
Second, it seems cyberattacks attributed to North Korea aren’t actually coming from North Korean soil. “This data and analysis demonstrate that there are significant physical and virtual North Korean presences in several nations around the world – nations where North Koreans are possibly engaging in malicious cyber and criminal activities,” the report explains. Highlighting India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nepal, Kenya, Mozambique and Indonesia among the countries where North Korean cyberattacks originate, the report identifies “a significant operational weakness which could be exploited to apply asymmetric pressure on the Kim regime, limit current North Korean cyber operational freedom and flexibility, and reduce the degree at which they are able to operate with impunity”. In other words, Western powers don’t need to go through China to make an impact.
Third, this unfettered internet access granted to elite families in North Korea is pretty clear evidence that sanctions and international pressure have failed to isolate the decision makers from the outside world. As the report explains: “They are active and engaged participants in the contemporary internet society and economy; meaning that attempts to shut North Korean leadership off from the global economy have largely failed.” After all, it’s not the leaders who need to have Western media smuggled across the border on recycled USB sticks.
The fourth is related: they’re not oblivious to Western opinion. As the report says, the North Korean elites are “likely aware of the impact that their decisions regarding missile tests, suppression of their population, criminal activities, and more have on the international community. These decisions are not made in isolation nor are they ill-informed as many would believe.”
All things considered, it’s hard not to also think of the 25 million North Koreans limited to the state-run internet of just 28 websites – roughly 40% of whom live below the poverty line. While a handful of elites get full access to the internet’s many advantages, cheerfully unaffected by the Western world’s tutting, the vast majority of citizens are left with a tiny handful of state-run sites: paying the price for the country’s continued status as an international pariah.