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27 July 2017

North Korea’s elite use the web like everyone, which isn’t surprising

A North Korean school boy at the Sci-tech Complex. A new report says that some North Koreans have very familiar online habits.
A North Korean school boy at the Sci-tech Complex. A new report says that some North Koreans have very familiar online habits.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

The small slice of folks who sit atop North Korea’s sociopolitical hierarchy use the internet pretty much like anyone else in the world, according to a study published by Recorded Future on Wednesday. 

That might sound surprising, and indeed the report sparked a flurry of news stories on the topic. But it shouldn’t come as a shock, according to experts familiar with the region.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that they like gaming and shopping at Amazon,” said Robert Manning, an Asia analyst with The Atlantic Council. “I think it’s not as weird a place as people think it is.”

The internet activity of North Koreans, as noted by Recorded Future, definitely supports that. 

North Koreans with access to the open internet — generally the members of the ruling family and those they trust, such as friends and staff members — do things you or I or really anyone else does on the internet. They read the news, mess around on Facebook, play some games, check email, and search for stuff on Amazon. They spend a ton of their time on the internet streaming stuff and gaming. Those two things combined make up 65 percent of North Korean internet activity. 

Those with internet access in North Korea are also fluent in United States culture and political discourse.

Those with internet access in North Korea are also fluent in United States culture and political discourse, according to Michael Madden, who runs North Korea Leadership Watch. They watch American pundits and read The New York Times and other international news outlets.

“North Koreans are not nearly as hermetically sealed as we make them out to be, and North Koreans are not nearly as hermetically sealed as they make themselves out to be,” Madden said. 

The country is more open than people realize, though access to any type of online information is still strictly monitored if you’re not high up on the ruling family food chain.

Many North Koreans have cellphones, but those phones are equipped with little more than the ability to call and text, according to Recorded Future. Some, such as “university students, scientists, and select government officials,” have access to the nation’s intranet, which is run and closely monitored by the government. 

While officials might be concerned about the computer activity of their fellow citizens, they’re evidently not that concerned that others can look in on their own computer antics. Recorded Future was able to get their data because, like seemingly damn near everyone else on the internet, the North Korean elite didn’t do much to obscure their online activity.

If that doesn’t prove an obvious commonality, then I’m not sure what does.

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