When the Internet goes down in North Korea, there aren't many to notice

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Marco Werman: So, does Kim Jong-un know that the opening of “The Interview” is back on? Depends on how well his internet is working today. Chances are though most North Koreans know nothing about the movie or the Sony hack. Only a few North Koreans--no one knows how many--have government permission to own a computer and the resources to buy one. So, when those North Koreans surf the web, what do they see? I asked Max Fisher, content director at Vox about that.


Max Fisher: They see something called the Kwangmyong, which is Korean for “Bright Star.” It’s a private, closed internet just within the country. What Kwangmyong looks like is sort of what the internet looked like circa 1994. You access it by a dial-up modem or by plugging yourself into a network at a university. There are only about 5,000 websites on the whole thing and you’re completely shut off from the rest of the internet, and you’ve got a few very old looking programs--e-mail, web browser, message forums--that are actually pirated copies of Japanese versions of Microsoft products that were smuggled in from China.


Werman: Wow, several generations off the original?


Fisher: Yeah, it’s not the finest hardware.


Werman: Okay, so you sort through some of these pages telling you how great Kim Jong-un is; at some point, can you get to Google.com?


Fisher: You cannot get to Google.com. You can’t get to anything on the outside. So, when the news came out this week that the North Korean internet was shut down, that actually did not touch the Kwangmyong, the Bright Star private intranet that most North Koreans know as the internet. For them, everything was just fine and dandy. What actually shut down was a very, very tiny network of computers in North Korea that are allowed to access the real outside internet, and this is just something that is reserved for the very inner core of top North Korean leadership who are trusted with this information and it’s also something that’s accessed by propagandists and hackers.


Werman: Who in North Korea actually gets to see Kwangmyong, Bright Star? How many people?


Fisher: Nobody knows the number of people for sure but it’s a pretty big number. North Korea is actually doing their best to institute technology into society. They’re kind of understanding that pirating DVDs of South Korean soap operas and the like are starting to trickle in, so they don’t want North Korea to look too poor or impoverished compared to the outside world. So, you can have cell phones now in North Korea if you’re kind of a member of this very, very tiny middle class that lives in Pyongyang or another major city. You can also try to get permission to own a personal computer but you have to register it with the police like it’s a shotgun, and permission is not easy to get for those.


Werman: If North Koreans are in an internet dark age, how is it that they’ve supposedly have a few thousand highly trained hackers?


Fisher: They just put a lot of resources into this. They pick people out of high school, maybe as early as grade school, when they look really, really promising and they will spend years training them in Pyongyang’s top universities; often, they will send them abroad to Russia or China to train as hackers. These are people who they really see as kind of the new vanguard of the military. For decades, North Korea has tried to have this military deterrent, and that means the secret nuclear program, that means lots of tanks and fighter jets. But it’s actually much cheaper and much more within their means to spend all of that money instead of training a small number of hackers. That’s actually why they launch attacks like the attack that they allegedly launched against Sony because it’s a deterrent, it’s a way of saying “Listen, if you mess with us, if you step on our toes, we can cause a lot of trouble for you.” Unlike conventional military attacks, there’s much less risk of it spiraling out of control.


Werman: A lot of people are wondering how that Sony hack happened, who was behind it. We’re also asking today what caused North Korea’s internet to go down yesterday for nine and a half hours and how they did it. What do you think?


Fisher: The State Department is refusing to deny responsibility, instead saying “We can’t discuss operational details.” So, they seem to be going out of their way to say “Hey, just so you know, we’re not denying responsibility for this.” At the same time, it is entirely possible that what happened was not that the NSA orchestrated a mass attack but rather that the White House called up China and said “Hey, can you shut down the North Korean internet” and China said “Sure, we’re not happy about this Sony hack either,” because North Korea’s very, very scant number of internet connections all run through China and the great Chinese firewall, so all it takes is someone in Beijing flipping the switch.


Werman: But we don’t know. Max Fisher, content director at Vox. Always great to speak with you, thanks a lot.


Fisher: My pleasure.