By David Chance and Ju-min Park
SEOUL, Jan 8 (Reuters) - North Korea has done its best to
butter up Google Inc. ahead of Executive Chairman Eric
Schmidt's visit that started on Monday, even to the extent of
setting up a gmail account for its state news agency KCNA at
Sadly, the Hermit Kingdom's chosen email address doesn't
work as it is short of the minimum six characters required for a
If Schmidt, on a private visit with Google executive Jared
Cohen and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, does access the
Internet in his foreigners-only hotel, he's likely to find a
similar experience to that in Google's Silicon Valley home.
Maxim Duncan, a Reuters correspondent who was in Pyongyang
in 2010 and 2012, said speeds on systems set up for visiting
foreign journalists were faster than those he was used to in
China and that no sites were blocked.
"China correspondents were amused they could tweet in North
Korea but not in China," he said.
Schmidt may even come across a North Korean tablet that was
unveiled last year and runs Google's Android operating system,
although the tablet is likely a knock-off of a cheap Chinese
clone, according to Martyn Williams, a technology journalist who
runs the North Korea Tech blog (www.northkoreatech.org).
But he will only get a glimpse of what experience of the web
is like for the small elite that is granted access if he looks
at the local Internet, essentially a North Korean-only Intranet
that blocks access to the outside world.
"If he types in google.com, he won't be able to reach it,"
said Williams, who has visited the North, a reclusive state that
has been run by the Kim family since it was established in 1948
and where Amnesty International says 250,000 people are
imprisoned in forced labour camps for political crimes.
Even the local Intranet is limited to the politically sound
among the 24 million strong population, according to Kim
Heung-kwang, a North Korean computer engineering expert who
defected to South Korea in 2004.
"I think around 100,000 people can use Intranet. There's a
North Korean version of portal service called "Naenara" (My
Country) and people can download content posted there," he said.
"People could do emails and chats until 2008, then the
government shut down these services... (Now) It's all about
digital content from propaganda papers such as Rodong Sinmun
(the main ruling party daily) or little games."
According to North Korean law, the punishment for using
anti-regime or "bourgeois" cultural content ranges from three
months to two years of hard labour. In severe cases, the code
allows up to five years of re-education through labour.
That is in sharp contrast to China, where social networking
sites like Sina Corp's hugely popular Weibo regularly
carry stinging criticism of low-level officials and corruption,
although China censors access to many websites.
North Korea's economy, burdened by the cost of maintaining
1.2 million strong armed forces, and both nuclear weapons and
rocket development programmes, is around 1/40th the size of
Its Internet is similarly stunted. The North has registered
just over 1,000 IP addresses, according to industry estimates
compared with more than 112 million in neighbouring South Korea
and more than 1.5 billion in the United States.
DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF HACKING
While North Korea's IT hardware skills are primitive, its
software industry has had some successes.
There's even a "Pyongyang Racer" computer game launched in
2012 and a software company called Nosotek also develops games
and other applications at a fraction of the cost of other firms.
Another area of software development has also seen success
for the North - malware - the malignant software that allowed
North Korea to carry out a 10-day denial of service attack on
South Korea in 2011.
Computers in the South from the government, military and
financial services sector were targeted in an attack that
antivirus firm McAfee, part of Intel Corp, dubbed "Ten Days of
Rain" and which it said was a bid to probe the South's computer
defences in the event of a real conflict.
"Cyberspace in North Korea is just a tool to attack and
destroy enemies, not a space for sharing information," said Jang
Se-yul, a former North Korean soldier who went to a military
college to groom hackers and who defected to the South in 2008.
Google's Cohen, who espoused the power of Twitter in the
"Arab Spring" revolutions and during protests in Iran, also
looks set to encounter the limits of freedom and technology in
his trip to the North.
Cohen held a well-publicised meeting with North Korean
defectors last year which Schmidt also attended. Google itself
hosted a dozen North Korean government officials the year
before, according to people involved with the trip, although the
technology giant declined comment when asked to confirm it.
A surge in 3G cellphone usage to more than a million users
in a service run by Egypt's Orascom Telecom Media Technology
had triggered hopes among observers that technology
could also crack the edifice of North Korea's one-party state
now ruled by the third generation of the Kim family.
But even a million cellphones is only 4 percent of the
population and the network is tightly controlled, so users can
only talk to others on the same network.
Suh Yoon-hwan, a researcher at the Database Center for North
Korean Human Rights, who surveyed more than 1,000 defectors who
arrived in South last year, said the Internet was a dream for
ordinary North Koreans.
"Even cellphones aren't working well. And these are mostly
for a limited group of people like traders or Chinese in North
Korea," said Suh.
"At the moment, people like thumbdrives, rather than CD-Roms
because they are bigger capacity and smaller size. They watch
South Korean soap operas or movies."