South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world- a place where national high-speed Internet access has created all sorts of interesting Internet-derivative culture that usually starts a few years before the U.S. On the other hand, just a stone’s throw away is North Korea, where Internet access is limited to the privileged and Internet-induced culture is practically non-existant (although I’m sure Kim Jong-il watches dancing hamsters on YouTube).
It was only a matter of time before the North introduced the Internet to the masses, and now they have taken the first step, by offering Internet service via mobile phones. It makes sense that Internet is being provided through mobile phones instead of fiber optic cables– as can be seen in many developing countries. But the Internet that North Koreans are getting is not exactly the Internet we think about. People will only have access to websites run by the Korean Central News Agency (run by the North Korean government).
One such website is Ryomyong.com. The site is a fun one to peruse through. There is some straight news and other “feature-type” news like “results of the Children’s baduk tournament”– which of course, was hugely successful. There are also books and e-books (costs 3.5- 5 euro to download) which are mostly literature pertaining to North Korea (North Korean political history, North Korean ideology, about Kim Jong-Il, etc.) except for a few novels, some music (all North Korean music except for some old Korean folk songs), a catalog of local agriculture products (produce, liquor), and a cyber art gallery that also comes with a form where you can submit your own art. For some reason, this site looked more like a site intended for curious foreigners instead of catering to the needs of actual North Koreans– kind of like North Korea making a statement “Hey look at what I can do!!!”. It was cute that the site made an effort to include multimedia content–photos, videos, music.
But it’s not like everyone can own a mobile phone. Some 20,000 customers are allegedly already using the 3G cell phone service, according to The People’s Korea (Chosun Sinbo) a N. Korean newspaper published in Japan. However, this number includes foreigners. Also, the service is currently only available in Pyongyang and on the highway between Pyongyang and Hyangsan (about 75 miles northeast of Pyongyang) and one is not allowed to make overseas phone calls (surprise surprise!). So I don’t know if we can actually say that North Korea has Internet access, because North Korea’s idea of the Internet is certainly not what the founders of the Internet had in mind. Maybe it’s more fair to say that North Koreans now have a new way to access government-supplied information. I guess that’s still an advancement in terms of developing communications tools.