The North Korean Internet Experience

Can you remember a time when the Internet wasn’t at your fingertips? When it was something that required an extra special step or series of steps? And even if you were “on” the Internet, the place was a collection of dark alleys and other places that weren’t often frequented, requiring special incantations and pieces of software to access.

The stories this week of the private visit of Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt to North Korea, and the descriptions of the kind of computer access that most of the North Koreans have, got me thinking about this issue. We tend to take the Internet, and free access from every screen we own, as a right of nature.

Most North Koreans are poor, too poor to feed themselves let alone a computer. If they do have one, they have no concept of broadband connections, unlike their neighbor to the south that is one of the most heavily connected countries in the world. Cross that DMZ line and you move back in time at least 20 years, or 200 if you consider that many people don’t even have reliable electric power. Interestingly, the fence along the DMZ is electrified.

Of course, Richardson and Schmidt got to visit places in North Korea that are logged on: a computer science university computer lab and government offices of privileged officials. The lab had electric power for the computers but it didn’t seem to have much heat, as the pictures showed everyone typing away in their winter coats. That is telling. Perhaps the lab was used as a storeroom last month? Who knows.

For those of you that don’t remember, as late as 1990 most businesses in the US couldn’t and didn’t have any Internet connection whatsoever, unless they did business with the Defense Department or were part of university research labs. For the rest of us, we had to contend with email gateways that were creaky, use dial-up modems to Compuserve and others who offered their own version of online content. The North Koreans who are lucky enough to get online have their own intranet that is mostly a container of government propaganda, and little else. Even the Chinese have a richer Internet experience, Great Firewall and all that.

Yes, sometimes the Internet seems a gigantic cesspool of malware, miasma, mediocrity, and smut. And to that, I say we should be thankful. Not for that salacious content, necessarily, but for the fact that most of us can search for everything and anything, without the government shutting us off from the global communication feed and instantaneous collection of the human condition, 24×7.

Maybe someday the North Koreans will have an open society, where their students can learn programming for their own sake, to build their own entrepreneurial efforts instead of working to launch nuclear-tipped rockets and cyber-attacks on the rest of the world. This openness might not happen immediately, and might not happen until some other big changes in their government and society.

So I understand why Richardson and Schmidt went there this week. They want to offer people some hope, and show them what the rest of us take for granted. It was an instructive moment, and while you can say diplomatically it wasn’t the best idea, you have to start somewhere.

Happy new year and comments always welcome here:

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