North Korea 3G Launch: Can Social Media Change Pyongyang?

By Slav Kandyba , Mar 13, 2013 02:21 PM EDT

Headline-grabbing news out of North Korea alternates lately between military threats towards the U.S. and the visit by Dennis Rodman for an HBO special. Little is known about the country's tech sector, as the media's focus often singles out enigmatic leader Kim Jong-Un and his human rights record. 

While it's not exactly experiencing a tech boom nor posing any threat to catch up to Japan or China technologically — much less than its neighbor to the south, home to Samsung — last week North Korea quietly launched its first 3G data network.

Of course, the network is not for everyone; the country's own citizens can't use it, while foreigners are allowed to do so. The first tweet was sent by Associated Press reporter Jean H. Lee, who shared her experiences with Buzzfeed. 

While in North Korea, Lee has been posting to Instagram and tweeting — a stark comparison to just five years ago, when she had to leave her phone at the airport. Foreigners have access to fast broadband Internet while North Korean citizens are limited to a state-controlled Intranet system. 

Oddly, North Koreans are segregated from the Internet altogether. Special clearance from state security is required to even send emails to foreigners. The Intranet is limited to messaging other locals and connecting with North Korean internal websites. On the upside, North Koreans can download certain books to their tablets. 

Since its own software industry is just getting off the ground — Lee is investigating the movement — most hardware found in North Korea trickles in from China, brought back by businessmen. Computers are used in urban areas and in rural communities, where they are powered by generators. Cellphone usage is still limited, as only 1 million cellphone subscribers out of 24.5 million citizens can text, call, and send photos to one another.

Social media is brand new to the country but does exist. A version of it, not quite like Twitter but more like a bulletin board, is used mostly in universities. Censorship is still alive and well in North Korea, as its citizens are restricted in what they can publish on the Intranet and censor themselves out of fear.

"The culture of fear in North Korea still exists," says Lee. "People are conscious of what they are saying, emailing, and posting. That is something that won't change right away." 

North Koreans aren't very forthcoming about the restrictions and "wouldn't speak publicly about any frustrations they might feel at not having access to what the rest of the world does," Lee added. "It is baby steps. They are so far from free and open discussion."  

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