Wireless living: Limited Internet access in North Korea affects country’s development

By Imana Gunawan
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Will Scott, doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, is back in Seattle and sits at the UW Communications Building. He spent last fall teaching computer science to undergraduates in North Korea. (Photo by Imana Gunawan/NWAW)

While most of the developed world enjoys Internet access as a basic human right, North Koreans live with their web access heavily regulated and monitored.

This is just one of the experiences that Will Scott, a doctoral candidate in computer science at the University of Washington, had during his time in North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Last fall, Scott taught computer science to undergraduates at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). After he returned to Seattle on Jan. 2, he did a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” post, which garnered around 500 responses and nearly 9,000 upvotes — a system of post approval used by Reddit users.

Scott explained that his motivation to travel to the DPRK came from both academic and cultural curiosity about a place he didn’t know much about.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting an accurate perception from the media,” he said. “In terms of being a computer scientist, it’s one of the places that has a totally separate element of the Internet.”

In 2012, the World Policy Journal rated the DPRK as the most isolated country in the world. The publication used the percentage of individuals connected to the Internet as one of the factors in determining whether a country is isolated.

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Scott teaches computer science to undergraduates in Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea — one of the few places in the world with restricted Internet access. (Photo courtesy of Will Scott)

At PUST, Scott taught operating systems to the computer science junior class and databases to the seniors. Because his studies focus on networking and operating systems, Scott was interested in understanding more about the usage of technological advances in North Korea.

The country does not provide the Internet to most of its population, but rather, they have an Intranet called “Kwangmyong” — an open service available only to North Koreans. Internet access is typically only available to higher-level individuals, such as university professors, graduate students, diplomats, or other government officials.

Even for those who can access the Internet, their activities are still regulated and monitored, according to Brigit Stadler, a UW graduate student who studies tourism and colonialism in North Korea. She said that currently, the network still allows foreigners or tourists to check e-mails. The government also provides wi-fi, so foreigners can use their cell phones and social media, such as Instagram.

“But then of course, if people are sending e-mails home, it would still be monitored,” Stadler said.

The country is currently experiencing technological advancement bit-by-bit, according to Clark Sorensen, UW associate professor of international studies and chair of the Korea Program at the Jackson School of International Studies.

With private institutions like the PUST, which receives contributions from countries like China and the United States, the higher-education students have been exposed to education beyond the DPRK party doctrines that typically dominate the primary and secondary education. Yet, these kinds of education are still only available to more privileged members of the population.

Despite some breathing room in Internet access, they are still limited and thus provide challenges for Scott, who needs power and Internet access to teach computer science. For example, Scott said most students don’t have their own laptops or access to the Internet. He can’t just tell the students to “Google it” because Google restricts some of its enterprise services in countries like North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Sudan, and Syria.

“A lot of computer science education really breaks down without access to the Internet,” Scott wrote in his Reddit AMA. “A lot of the debugging process and figuring things out and being self-sufficient boils down to Googling and finding stuff online. It made a lot of the assignments ending up feeling like I was spelling everything out and still having to answer a bunch of questions.”

Though Scott enjoyed interacting with the students, he said staying in Pyongyang for much longer would be challenging with restricted access to Internet, especially for research purposes. Even offline research resources may be limited.

These limitations, as well as other educational methods, do take some toll on the country’s educational development, according to Sorensen. For example, students ended up not studying as many technical subjects like math and science because the students spent more time studying party doctrines and the lives of their leaders.

Even though North Korea and South Korea have a similar amount of compulsory school years (10 for North Korea, 12 for South Korea), Sorensen said that North Korean refugees with high school-level education who go to South Korea may not be able to compete academically with South Korean students.

Sorensen added that the increase in more technical education may also be because the country wants to grow technological advancements. Currently, the DPRK’s centrally planned economy prevents the country from further developing. “It’s very difficult for them to get out of it because they won’t admit that they have structural problems,” he said. “They think, ‘Oh, there’s a technical fix. If only we had the right technology, we could fix it.’”

Based on his experience, Scott said that the average DPRK populations primarily use computers in industrial or enterprise work, as opposed to personal, but he is also seeing more mobile device users.

“Part of this computer science program, I think, was the government’s attempt to understand that technology more. … You see that in a lot of the developing world,” Scott said. “But until you go there, you don’t really realize what that looks like.” (end)

Imana Gunawan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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