Over the past decade, there has been an increased number of digital devices in North Korea. Around 50 to 80 percent of adults may now have mobile phones, allowing them to text and call family members. Yet the use of these phones is highly controlled—data speeds are low, with devices capturing screenshots every few minutes and code that only allows government-approved content to be shown. And internet penetration is at nowhere near the same level.
“North Korean people cannot use it, not because of the infrastructure or not because of the country’s poor conditions,” says Nam Bada, the secretary general of Pscore and editor of the report. “It is only because of the governmental policy.”
A few dozen families with connections to Kim Jong-Un and some foreigners have unrestricted access to the global internet, while a “few thousand” people—including government officials, researchers, and students studying IT—can access a surveillance-heavy version of it, according to the report and previous research. North Koreans like Kim who are allowed some foreign travel, usually for business, can sometimes access the global web while abroad.
Mitch Haszard, a senior threat intelligence analyst at security firm Recorded Future, which has previously analyzed North Korean internet traffic, says Chinese and Russian internet service providers hook the country up to the global network, and access by foreign visitors makes up some of what can be seen externally. This may have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic when there were fewer foreigners in North Korea and its borders were closed.
According to multiple defectors quoted in the Pscore report, global internet access is only available in certain locations and buildings within North Korea. One person claimed internet connections at the National Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, were only available on the second floor, and just eight computers were connected. Around five people were granted use, they said.
Another defector told the Pscore researchers that when they got permission to travel to Pyongyang to use the internet, they tried to download medical research papers but could only access the titles of the papers and the author names. “I knew the concept of the global internet when I was in North Korea, but I didn’t know that so much information was exchanged through it,” said Shin Yong-Rok, another defector.
Martyn Williams is a senior fellow with the Stimson Center and 38 North project who has extensively studied technology in North Korea but was not involved with the report. Williams says the testimonies track with those of other defectors but add new details about the levels of surveillance people face. In general, Williams says, internet access “appears to be available for officially sanctioned uses, such as some universities, research establishments, and likely some trade organizations and other establishments.” University students Williams spoke to have previously said that they are required to state why they need to use the internet and are monitored when they get online.
Williams points to a 2020 North Korean law that has ramped up the country’s efforts to stop foreign information from being accessed in the country. In recent years, outside information—including TV shows and South Korean content—has been smuggled across the border using USB drives, giving people a glimpse of the outside world. “The new law levies harsh penalties, up to and including death, on people caught with foreign information,” Williams says. (In 2021 it was reported that a man who smuggled copies of the dystopian Netflix thriller Squid Game into North Korea and sold them was sentenced to death.)