Spies, Entrepreneurs and the Internet in North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on November 9, 2011

According to an envoy I met in a park in Pyongyang, there is one informant for every three citizens in the DPRK. To put that penetration into perspective, the East German Stasi, one of the most pervasive police organizations in history, boasted one informant for every ten citizens. Some experts dispute this figure—naturally, given the astounding implications—but the familiarity of its source with state espionage gave me pause.

Before I traveled to the DPRK, I was told that I would encounter normal citizens, and then I would encounter actors playing normal citizens, and that the obvious distinction would be part of North Korea’s entertainment value. That duplicity seemed to hold up when James Bond Villain probed us about our jobs—asking Jordan, at one point, how many people he has “influence over in your country”—an exchange that might have been genuinely motivated but never quite felt like innocent conversation. The porcelain face, in contrast, reversed my suspicions. Her genuine curiosity about life in America and our impromptu English lessons on the bus resulted in a moving exchange and her crowning achievement: “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”

Then I learned that each week North Koreans are required to complete detailed write-ups of their observations, their concerns, even their own shortcomings. That’s when I realized that everyone in the DPRK is, in some sense, an extension and a reflection of the state. The boundary between genuine and calculated, actor and citizen, is—or at least feels—much thinner in North Korea. A model family, whose conspicuously charming flat was the only one we were invited into, made me wonder whether I was in fact in the presence of a real nuclear family spontaneously entertaining visitors.

That institutional paranoia has instilled a fear so deep that revolution seems impossible. But there is always a crack where the light shines through. After all, I had left for Pyongyang just as the smiling faces of Tripoli held up the severed head of Gaddafi’s gilded statue. Surely there must be a few brave souls to lead the DPRK revolution as well.

There appear to be none. The reasons are several: economic, cultural, technical and psychological. First, North Korea’s extreme privation keeps people weak and desperate. That explains some of the lethargy, but begs the question: Aren’t hungry people motivated? That impulse is checked by a deep cultural instinct: deference to authority, a pillar of the country’s Confucianism. The predisposition to obedience helps explain the country’s Stockholm Syndrome on a mass scale. The cult of personality in North Korea is unparalleled, and its grip over the country, reinforced by propaganda and time, has made most citizens automatonlike devotees. The DPRK’s information policy secures that result. State-run media maintain that the world is conspiring at every turn to destroy the DPRK, that war is imminent, that the U.S. is both occupying and seducing its southern half in a vicious game of nationalistic chess. (Remember the critical role that a perpetual external threat plays in a dictatorship.) Without access to the Internet, citizens have no other references — and none of the tools of organized resistance that proved invaluable in the Middle East. If those factors do not keep the populace quiet, there is that one universal deterrent: primal, brutish, deep-rooted fear. Anyone who engages in anything remotely illegal faces ghastly punishments that could take many excruciating forms. The renegade citizens who have escaped the country, taken secret footage to capture the horror, or resisted the regime in any way are incredibly rare. Given the punishments they face, imagine their bravery.

Instead, I discovered another form of resistance in North Korea’s secret pockets of entrepreneurship. A restaurateur who managed to open a second location—approved, of course, by the department of statistics, where the porcelain face once analyzed traffic flow in and out of each establishment to gauge demand—also bought a boat that sits lazily on the Taedong, not far from the captured U.S.S. Pueblo. Another local I met, a sharp kid who loves Anne Hathaway, confided that he sells Chinese goods to locals for a healthy profit. He didn’t know what to do with his earnings except buy a little extra food and treat himself to a round of bowling, alone. These examples of modest ingenuity confirm that the human mind hungers for the self-expression and opportunity of a free market. That is an encouraging sign, to be sure.

Another local confided his nightly routine. After dinner, he logs onto the intranet, a shoddy closed-loop network that connects certain Korean servers together, and plays a version of Counter-Strike with other anonymous gamers. An RPG badass, he boasted about meeting up with his female opponents in cafes in Pyongyang, the closest thing to online dating in North Korea. The women, he complained, left something to be desired. “So fat. So ugly!” That, Jordan pointed out, is one thing North Korea shares in common with the U.S.

“Would you like to play Counter-Strike with Americans?” I asked him.

“Oh my god, yes!”

“So why does North Korea not allow the Internet? You seem to really like it.”

“Ahhh no,” he snapped. “Live and work is very important. Not playing. Bad for children.”

“What about adults?”

“Ahhh yes better for adults. But when I was a child I hated to study and all I wanted was play and this would be bad, very bad, for our children.” He was deadpan now.

“What about not playing? What about research for school, for example?” In my head a Wikipedia page flashed.

“Yes, research very good,” he responded.

“Do you learn about American history?”

“Yes, Revolutionary War, very interesting.”

“Who do you think was right in the Revolutionary War, the British or the Americans?” I asked.

“The Americans, of course.”

“Why?”

“Because it is not fair to tax the Americans and not help them.”

This was blowing my mind. I was dying to draw the obvious parallel with the country we were driving through—a parallel even more immediate than the Japanese occupation, which is still a painful memory—but I wasn’t sure for whose benefit that conversation would be. James Bond Villain had now taken a seat nearby, presumably to listen in on a conversation that was quickly becoming a liability.

“You know a lot about history,” I offered. “Shouldn’t other people also learn by using the Internet?”

“Not possible. Koreans very proud of our culture. We want to protect ourselves. From infiltrating our culture by other countries.”

There it was. He seemed mildly embarrassed, but he continued.

“America is very different. In America, you have gays and l-lesbians, yes?”

“Yes, we do,” I replied.

“In Korea this is very strange for us. We don’t have this here. Me, I am very scared of gays.”

Silence.

“North

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Korea did not build the Internet because it is too expensive,” he explained. “We must to build homes, provide food and tradition.”

I looked at the Brobdingnagian monuments outside and thought of the colossal infrastructure required to run a regime like the DPRK. All of it mocked his argument that the Internet is a question of cost.

“God wants to give people food and housing. Air also very important. Fresh air is normal in North Korea.”

Everyone was listening now to his rant. His voice was shaking, his eyes darting.

“You have short hair.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Why?”

“It’s easy.”

“Hahaha! But he has long hair,” he said, pointing to a friend in our group with thick blonde hair.

“Long hair is a pain,” our friend chimed in.

“Yes,” sighed the boy. “But it is very awesome.”

Then he took my iPod and watched Dumb and Dumber, grinning at Jim Carrey in silence.

These unscripted ramblings reveal that the North Korean mind is far more curious and for more aware than it seems.

 

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Denise December 10, 2011 at 1:13 am

It is so sad while the world laughs at the failed country of North Korea. How foolish the population must be if any actually praise the homosexual freak that runs it.He is a joke and makes us all laugh. We call him, the clown of the north disasterland.He builds weapons while his people starve and children die just so he can feed his false ego and miniature stature. The soldier in the photo looks like he is malnurished. Doesn’t look like he could win a battle with a moth. Pathetic.
How corrupt the generals must be not to slice the nose off of the very beast that has caused so much misery.

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Me February 29, 2012 at 1:56 am

Was there any difficulty getting your iPod into North Korea? I had heard that the border controls prohibit most electronic equipment, and your iPod could have held South Korean songs or other forbidden material.

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gabriel February 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm

No problem there. They searched our bags when we arrived and were quite lenient on devices — they’re aware of the risk. The only thing you cannot bring in are laptops, though strangely iPads are fine.

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KC May 2, 2012 at 3:50 am

I was in DPRK in April 2012. We were allowed to take in ipads, laptops, Compact cameras with zooms up to 1200mm. DSLR’s (Canon 5D Mark II) were allowed but with zoom only to 200mm. No GPS was allowed in cameras. All mobile phones were wrapped in envelopes and held by our guides. Passports were also held by our guides for the duration.

We were told that cameras would be checked upon departure for any unauthorised photos but the most they did was switch the cameras on and switch them off again. One camera had no battery left on it and they didnt complain.

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jordan May 2, 2012 at 5:40 am

Our group was in the DPRK this April as well! We probably ran right into each other!

You’re right- No GPS is allowed on cameras. However, your cellphones are checked at the airport (not held by the guides). You can also hold on to your passport if you like, but it’s more convenient to just let the guides hang onto it since they need it to check you into the hotel anyway. :)

They’re very lax with photos. The only times they really check is if you take the train out, and then they’ll check to make sure you don’t have a dozen photos of tanks or military equipment or something.

-Jordan

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KC May 2, 2012 at 6:00 am

Hi Jordan

Interesting! That’s an example of how random the DRPK checks are then.

We caught the train in and out via Dandong. Guides definitely held onto the phones and passports. We werent given an option with the passports. We were told that they would keep them and that was that.

Strangely enough some of our group flew out and their cameras were checked by the guide who deleted about 25 photos, some of which were taken from a boat in Dandong rather than in DPRK itself. The pictures were already backed up so no big deal. DRPK Customs did not bother checking their photos.

Those of us who caught the train out did not have our photos checked at all.

I guess it all comes down to the randomness of which guide or customs officer you get.

cheers

KC

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KC May 2, 2012 at 6:07 am

BTW – Did I mention that we also took in ipods and Kindles? Neither of which were even switched on by the customs people. Even with the laptops all they did was boot them up to a login screen and that was it. Didnt ask for passwords or anything. :)

Schaffer April 14, 2012 at 8:53 pm

I find it hard to believe that a child in north Korea would know about the word “God”, much less speak the word in public. Do you think he was referring to Kim Il Sung instead?

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gabriel April 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Many know the word and the concept. In this particular case, the local was particularly good at English and aware of the colloquial uses of the term as well.

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KC May 2, 2012 at 3:53 am

We were trying to establish how much our guides knew of the outside world. Interestingly enough they had heard of David Beckham but had never heard of Jesus Christ… I kid you not!

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jordan May 2, 2012 at 5:38 am

That’s not that strange actually. They’re big into football (soccer) there, but religion is censured of course. There is an orthodox church with a big cross on top in Pyongyang, but services are held by gov’t officials. There is a Russian orthodox priest living in Pyongyang as well.

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KC May 2, 2012 at 6:03 am

True… “Strange” was when we got to watch “Bend it like Beckham” on the TV they insisted remain switched on during breakfast one morning :)

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