Internet Freedom in the DPRK
Most North Koreans are not aware of the existence of the global Internet as the access has been prohibited ever since its invention. This is done to block the inflow of external information and protect the stability of the regime. Instead, North Korean citizens are using a state-controlled national Intranet, a heavily censored and constrained alternative. Only a small selection of citizens has the privilege of using the global World Wide Web, such as government officials, specialized researchers and workers abroad.
The DPRK’s restrictions on global Internet and Intranet access pose grave concerns for the political, social and economic freedom of North Korean citizens. With this report on Internet Freedom in the DPRK, PSCORE sheds light on the DPRK’s unparalleled restrictions on global Internet access, illustrating again its strong authoritarian features.
The North Korean Model of Internet Control
The DPRK is aware of the importance of digital devices and global Internet access for its sustainable development. In the early 1990s, former supreme leader Kim Jong-Il praised the country’s scientific and technological progress. His speech, fueled by the North Korean famine crisis, propelled research in this field to establish an initial plan to build a national fiber optic network infrastructure in the long term. Later, influenced by his 2001 visit to the Pudung Industrial Complex in Shanghai, Kim announced his mobile telecommunication project, which he hoped to expand from the capital, Pyongyang. In the same way, in its 2021 Voluntary National Review, the DPRK acknowledged the role of optimal technologies for overcoming the difficulties of protracted sanctions, natural disasters, and the coronavirus pandemic – which would in turn contribute to progress in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and improve the livelihood of its people.
The DPRK uses a cyber strategy of “Control First, Then Use”, preventing any external information from reaching the general public. Instead the North Korean citizens are provided with a national intranet, that primarily serves as a medium of workplace efficiency, education, commercialization and entertainment. The content is heavily monitored, just as any features of communication to prohibit the spreading of any dissenting opinions. Access to the Intranet is also severely limited due to a lack of computers and the available content is a mix of propaganda tools and heavily censored material.
Even the selected few, which are granted access to the global Internet, must undergo a time-consuming screening process. Prior to usage, an application must be made, which states the purpose of internet usage, as well as the time and date. This application is reviewed and must be accepted by three separate authorities. If permission is granted citizens have to follow network usage protocols and are supervised by security inspectors.
“A librarian sits between two Internet users, and continuously monitors what people on both sides are searching up. Every five minutes, the screen freezes automatically, and the librarian must do a fingerprint authentication to allow further Internet use. In total, we were allowed to use the Internet for one hour. I needed to find data within that hour. To reuse the Internet, you need to get new permission. There was a State Security Officer who was always present.” – Kim Suk Han
Internet Access as a Human Right
As of 2022, the DPRK is a state party to five of the nine core international human rights instruments: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified in 1981; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified in 1981; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified in 2001; the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified in 1990; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified in 2016. Although the legal obligations set forth by these instruments are all binding on the DPRK, the Kim regime has been known to violate the human rights protected by these treaties, according to multiple human rights reports over the years.
The ICCPR implies a right to the Internet under Article 19, which guarantees everyone a right to the freedom of expression, where “this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” First, the words “regardless of frontiers” imply that one should not be restricted to information available only within their country, which contrasts with what the DPRK’s national Intranet and restricted global Internet access intends to do. Furthermore, the words “through any other media of his choice” suggest that this is not only a geographical frontier but also a technological one.
Similarly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights implies a right to the Internet in Article 15, which recognizes “the right of everyone to take part in cultural life; to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;” and “to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.” The CRPD also implies a right to the Internet under Articles 9 and 21. Article 9 places an obligation on the government to increase access to ICTs, including the Internet, for those with disabilities. Meanwhile, Article 21 requires the government to take active steps to ensure that those with disabilities have an equal opportunity to express their opinion and access information through mass media or any other public service, including those provided through the Internet.
Further the refusal of access to the internet hurts other human rights, such as the freedom of opinion and expression which is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to privacy, which is recognized in several core human rights instruments, including the UDHR, ICCPR, and CRC, of which the DPRK is bound by legal obligation and the right to education, which has been recognized as a human right in a number of international conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.