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ICT in N. Korea

2019-01-24

© YONHAP News

During his visit to Pyongyang last year, President Moon Jae-in attended the mass gymnastics performance “Glorious Country” alongside North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un on September 19.


North Korea recently introduced the mass gymnastics performance after 5 years of preparations, and it was accompanied by various state-of-the-art technologies, such as projection lasers and media art. The drone show displaying the words “Glorious Country” was the highlight of the performance and took many observers around the world by surprise. Today, we’ll talk about the level of North Korea’s information and communications technology with Cha Moon-seok, professor at the Institute for Unification Education. 


Historically, the advancement of North Korea’s information and communications technology started with the development of the first generation digital computer, called “Junjin-5500,” led by researchers who studied in France in the 1960s. 

In the 1970s, the second-generation transistor computer “Yongnamsan-1” was developed at Kim Il Sung University. Computers at the level of 486 DX were manufactured in the 1980s, and in the 2000s, North Korea and China jointly founded the “Achim Panda” computer company to put together and manufacture Pentium-level computers. 


More recently, the North Korean electronics corporation “Blue Sky” has been making POP computers, laptops and LED portable projectors, while the foreign joint venture company “Achim” mainly produces televisions and laptops. Sujongchon Tech Co. makes TV monitors and USB memory sticks, while the joint venture Hana Electronics focuses on portable batteries. 


As North Korea is considered one of the world’s poorest countries, it’s natural to assume the country has a low level of information and communications technology or ICT. However, North Korea has been developing computers since the 1960s. The country began to invest in the ICT industry in earnest in 1998, after Kim Jong-il announced the first five-year plan on science and technological development.


After that, North Korea set a goal to become an elite technologically advanced nation by 2022. As a result, the country now manufactures computers, laptops, tablet PCs and more. Their software technologies, in particular, are quite advanced. 


North Korean software technologies are considered world class. Since the 1990s, North Korea used India’s software industry as a benchmark, as it focused on personnel training and technical improvements. North Korean PCs are at a level where foreign programs that run on Windows can be run as they are, while smartphones and tablet PCs can utilize Android apps. 


Most of North Korea’s software development was the result of the North’s attempts to create counterparts to software that exist elsewhere. For example, the operating system developed in North Korea is called ‘Red Star.’ 

The latest version released is version 4.0, and this OS is basically the North Korean version of Linux. The program “Uri Office” is their office suite program similar to Microsoft Office.


North Korea has opted to concentrate on software development instead of hardware, as the latter is a more expensive undertaking. They founded the ‘Pyongyang Information Center’ in 1985 and the ‘Korea Computer Center’ in 1990 in an effort to focus on software development. 


As a result, Eunbyul, North Korea’s self-developed software designed to play the ancient Chinese game of Go, took first place at an international Go computer competition in 1998. Nowadays, North Korea’s signature software is the OS ‘Red Star.’ Developed by the North’s largest tech organization ‘Korea Computer Center (KCC),’ the OS uses strong security features to track and monitor all keyboard and mouse movement by users.


Kim Jong-un hopes to build on his country’s ICT success to grow North Korea’s economy through tech and knowledge-based innovations. 


Since Kim Jong-un rose to power in North Korea, the country has taken a more aggressive strategy to develop its science and information technology sectors. Kim Jong-un sees technology and information as strategic challenges that will improve the North Korean economy and society. Due to its prolonged financial difficulties, North Korea has very limited access to skilled manpower, capital and resources. So the strategies appear to be the results of the country’s aim to overcome such limitations. This requires a strong scientific foundation, and so its policies are understandably focused on science and technology. 


In 2012, Kim Jong-un announced his plans to build a strong, knowledge and technology-based economy via technological developments. This is the North Korean version of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, kickstarting the country’s research on various new technologies including artificial intelligence, big data, virtual technology, and Internet of Things.

Some of these technologies are already in use. In October 2015, North Korea announced the use of a 3D printer in cosmetic surgery and dentistry. According to its state media, a telemedicine service was expanded to cover all provinces in 2016. Such technologies are not developed on their own, but by people. So North Korea is also focusing on nurturing an educated science and technology workforce.  


North Korea has established science education facilities for talented students, while also providing after-school computer classes to help nurture ICT education. North Korea is known to have begun nurturing ICT talents in the early 1990s at Kim Chaek Industrial University, Kim Il-Sung University and Pyongyang University of Computer Science, and it is said that the number of ICT students at these institutions number 30,000. At Pyongyang Teachers University, virtual and augmented reality technologies are reportedly used for educational purposes. It shows how much effort the country is focusing on science and technology.


In North Korea, elementary school students reportedly learn about computer circuitry, operating Windows and C programing. In middle school, they study computer mathematics, algorithm and Linux programming, while in high school students are taught about computer communications and networks. 


Of course, North Korea’s ICT education as a whole is lacking both in facilities and personnel. But exceptionally talented students are given the opportunity to study at North Korea’s top universities, including Kim Il-Sung University and Kim Chaek Industrial University. These promising tech students are said to be treated extremely well.


Talented individuals in science and technology are known to receive stellar treatment in North Korea, especially since the Kim Jong-un regime began. 


From research facilities to residence and salary, the scientifically gifted are given special treatment in all aspects of life in an effort to make sure they will support the country’s science and technology-focused policies. 


As of 2013, about 170,000 people worked in North Korea’s ICT industry, with about 100,000 of them working in programming-related fields. With such a huge workforce in the ICT industry, distribution of tech, such as tablet PCs, is rapidly expanding. 


What’s unique about North Korea’s situation is that tablet PCs are used as substitute for paper, which is oftne hard to come by. The country began self-manufacturing tablet PCs around 2013, and there are about 5 or 6 different companies that make them.


With the increase of tablet PC use, consumer spending on drama, film, music and various other entertainment has been rising. While tablet PC users are known to watch mostly Chinese dramas and films, it is said that lately there has been a boom in popularity for South Korean dramas. I suspect this trend will continue.


North Korea’s science and technological development has created a surprisingly robust ICT sector for a country with its level of development. Technology has also created a gateway for the North Korean people through which they can access entertainment, material, and ideas from outside the country. North Korea’s better  ICT capabilities could even be considered a new cooperation field that both South and North Korea could benefit from. 


In fact, North Korea also shows high potential in mobile technology. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at North Korea’s mobile industry and its level of sophistication.

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