What’s the point of a computer in a hermit country sealed off from the internet? What use can a smartphone be if the smartest uses are blocked? And why would anyone learn computer coding in a country closed off from the world-wide-web?
These are the conundrums at the core of the puzzle about technology in North Korea. If the South is the most teched-up nation in the world, the North ought to be the least — except it’s not.
At least one in 12 people in North Korea have smartphones. We know that North Korea has so many smartphones because its 3G network is run by Koryolink, a joint venture between an Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom, and the North Korean state. The Egyptian end publishes figures which add up to about two million North Korean subscribers.
Another question: How do North Koreans manage without the global internet? With difficulty, is the answer.
A few bright students are trained and do have access from controlled and monitored institutions while the mass of the citizenry have to make do with the internal North Korean intranet called the Kwangmyong.
There’s advice in English, Korean and Chinese on diet and age, the kind of health webpage which would generate clicks on any website anywhere. But this is some way short of the sum of all knowledge and delight provided by the worldwide web.
For the general populace this intranet has to suffice. The authorities are hyper-keen to close the slightest crack in the wall to the internet outside.