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North Korea goes online with a medium company sized Intranet for most

With the possible exception of Eritrea, North Korea is still the least Internet-friendly country on Earth.

AP  |  Pyongyang 

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North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un

Ever so cautiously, is going online.

Doctors can consult via live video conferencing. People text each other on their smart phones. In the wallets of the privileged are cards for e-shopping and online banking.

And this is all done on a tightly sealed of the sort a medium-sized company might use for its employees.

With the possible exception of Eritrea, is still the least Internet-friendly country on Earth. Access to the global for most is unimaginable, and hardly anyone has a personal computer or an email address that isn't shared.

But for Kim Jong Un, the country's first leader to come of age with the Internet, the idea of a more wired also comes with the potential for great benefits and for new forms of social and political control.

Pyongyang's solution is a two-tiered system where the trusted elite can surf the with relative freedom while the masses are kept inside the national intranet, painstakingly sealed off from the outside world, meticulously surveilled and built in no small part on pilfered software.

The sprawling, glassy Sci-Tech Complex houses North Korea's biggest e-library, with more than 3,000 terminals. Pak Sung Jin, a postgraduate in chemistry, came to work on an essay.

Unlike most North Koreans, Pak has some experience with the Internet, though on a supervised, need-only basis. If Pak needs anything from the Internet, accredited university officials will find it for him.

Today, he is relying on the Internet's North Korean alter ego, the national intranet, a unique way to exert control through not just blocking but complete separation.

Pak is on the walled-off network North Koreans call "Kwangmyong," which means brightness or light. Using the "Naenara" browser, the name means "my country" but it's a modified version of FireFox, Pak visits a restaurant page, his university website, and cooking and online shopping sites.

There are about 168 sites on Kwangmyong, an official said, spread across separate networks for government agencies, schools and libraries, and companies.

Like most North Korean computers, the desktops at the Sci-Tech Complex run on the "Red Star" operating system, which was developed from Linux open-source coding.

Leaked versions of Red Star also reveal some rather sinister, and for most users invisible, features.

Any attempt to change its core functions or disable virus checkers results in an automatic reboot cycle. Files downloaded from USBs are watermarked so that authorities can identify and trace criminal or subversive activity. And a trace viewer takes regular screenshots of what is being displayed.

First Published: Thu, November 09 2017. 13:03 IST