As you might expect, North Korea’s “Internet” mirrors North Korea itself: Sad, secluded, and limited to just a handful of propagandistic sites.
There’s a country-wide intranet, and the content consists of state news and message boards. A custom-built operating system, Red Star, includes a mandatory readme file about “how important it is that the operating system correlates with the country’s values.” Whenever leader Kim Jong Un is mentioned, his name is displayed slightly bigger than the text around it.
And the weirdest part about it? It doesn’t have to be that way.
In a recent conversation with The Atlantic‘s Steve Clemons, Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen—who co-wrote the new book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business—mentioned that North Korea actually has the capacity for a full-fledged Internet network. It just chooses not to have one.
The mobile networks are there, Schmidt said, the country’s leadership just hasn’t turned on the data.
“It’s just arrogance, stupidity and bad decisions that prevents this,” Schmidt said. “There is literally one command to turn on the Internet.”
North Korea has too many horrors to describe — gulags, starvation, forced reverence of a demented leader—but Internet access would speed the end of the regime. The utter lack of knowledge about the outside world there keeps a lid on dissent and domestic strife. North Koreans for the most part live in a total information dead zone, told they are lucky even as they endure food shortages and freezing winters without heating. The fact that it could all be undone with the flip of a switch is both maddening and heartbreaking.
Schmidt visited Pyongyang in January in part to try to push the leadership on the Internet issue, he later told reporters:
North Korea is the last really closed country in the world. This is a country that has suffered from lack of information. The Internet was built for everyone, including North Koreans. The quickest way to get economic growth in North Korea is to open up the Internet. I did my best to tell them this.
When foreigners visit, Schmidt wrote earlier this year, “the government stages Internet browsing sessions by having ‘students’ look at pre-downloaded and preapproved content, spending hours (as they did when we were there) scrolling up and down their screens in totalitarian unison.”
At the Atlantic event, Schmidt pointed out that at least now, smuggled mobile phones and DVDs from South Korea are proliferating, and where possessing these illicit materials might have carried the death penalty years ago, the government now appears to be letting such minor transgressions slide. Still, though, for a major policy decision like turning on the Internet, “the Kid has to decide,” Schmidt said.
Olga Khazan is The Atlantic’s global editor.