Almost a decade has passed since North Korea installed its own fibre-optic cable network and launched its intranet “Kwangmyong” in 2000. Just two years later, the first cyber café opened in Pyongyang, several others started to sprout.

Kwangmyong, which means “bright,” supplies a browser (called Naenara), e-mail, news groups, and a search engine. Compared to the North Korean web censorship, China’s “great firewall” allows immense freedom for the Chinese. North Korea’s own censorship (a local version of the “great firewall”) is controlled by the Korean Computer Center, and those who are allowed contact with the rest of the world are to supply Kwangmyong with information—an effective way for the leader to stay in control of what information gets distributed to research institutions, factories, and schools; even though only a handful of people have access anyway.

Kwangmyong runs on pre-programmed computers—computers that use Red Star OS, North Korea’s own operating system built on Linux. Naenara, the browser, is the main information portal on Kwangmyong, and based off of Mozilla Firefox. Whenever Kim Jong-Un’s name is mentioned, the text is programmed to make the font larger than the rest.

So what does a nationwide intranet imply? In fact, computer courses are avidly taught in schools, online-dating is permitted, and just simply allowing children to play video games. (Perhaps North Korea’s first video game, “Pyongyang Racer.”)

While the censorship is extreme, people have found ways to bypass the restricted access. In the northern borders leading into China, people have been smuggling pre-paid cellphones in order to gain access to the outside world. With the introduction of smartphones, this might mean ordinary citizens could explore China’s comparatively loose Internet—this time spelled with an “er” and connected to the whole wide world.

In the case of the Arab Spring, we saw how crucial the role social media played in facilitating a movement, in connecting people. With the prospects of a call for reform occurring over the Internet being highly unlikely, the dictatorship is able to satisfy the need for technological advancement for the most part all while staying in control.

Perhaps one day, a kid using the cellphone her dad risked to smuggle, would be able to make her voice heard and create a ripple. 


Choose Your Own Collapsed Adventure

North Korea’s impending collapse is a question of “when” rather than “if.” A recent report by RAND Corporation advised the U.S., South Korea, and allies to be prepared for such a demise. Experts predict the eventual collapse will create a disastrous ripple in Northeast Asia—politically and economically.

So what could happen?

Scenario #1: Fight for those karaoke nights in Pyongyang.

This first scenario agrees with the premise of the war economy theory—where ruling elites have a desire to protect their interests derived from the current dysfunctional state. The top elites who benefit from serving under the Great Leader will likely want to keep the status quo, otherwise, they would have to face ICC trials. In order to keep this “order,” elites would likely ignite a civil war or coup d’état if state collapse were on the table. In the midst of bloody chaos, the elites would hope China intervenes to set up a buffer state, since China has in the past refused entry of North Korean refugees in its borders.

Scenario #2: Better share the nuclear programs with friends.

In addition to rekindling the nuclear reactor, North Korea also has the capacity to manufacture key centrifuge components and technologies that can enrich uranium as bomb fuel. Players with such expertise would likely be interested in selling the program off somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps Syria or Iran.

Scenario #3: No more rice. No more nothing.

North Korean citizens rely heavily on a shaky state distribution system and supplies from the black market. With the frequent changes in rice prices and unstable currency, a collapse will cause the country to spiral into another humanitarian crisis. By the sheer numbers of refugees that could potentially enter nearby countries, South Korea’s economy could immediately worsen. China might be reluctant in even admitting refugees as regional ethnic tensions could rise.

Scenario #4: Happily dysfunctional.

The World Bank compiled the World Governance Indicators (WGI) this week, North Korea’s indicator of “political stability and absence of violence” rose from -0.32 to a 0.01 in 2012. This shows that perhaps Kim Jong-Un would be in power for the foreseeable future, and the state will remain durable.

Adventure style inspired by this original post.

Nuclear Weapons Make Emotional Music

In late August, a satellite image captured white steam emitting from North Korea’s main nuclear facility in Yongbyon. The site hosts the 5MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor, which uses steam turbines for electricity. The image is indicative of the reactor’s electrical system coming online. At full operation, the reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium per year—enough to manufacture one nuclear bomb.

Amidst regional tensions earlier in April, North Korea expressed its intention to restart the particular reactor since its hiatus in 2007. As a part of a disarmament-for-aid deal, North Korea agreed to shut down the facility, and dismantled the cooling tower the following year. Since then, the Six-Party Talks (between North and South Korea, China, U.S., Japan, and Russia) came to a stall regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. In 2009, IAEA (the 159-nation International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors were banned from visiting the country. Within a few years, North Korea then revealed its uranium enrichment facility that can be converted to a production facility supplying bomb materials.

While nuclear proliferation does not come as a particular surprise in regards to this “watch-list” state, it is rather prominent in illuminating North Korea’s temperamental characteristic. Pyongyang alternates between seeming cooperation and high-profiled threats—using its nuclear capabilities as leverage.

North Korea thrives to live up to its motto—“powerful and prosperous nation.” Regardless of the validity, it is disconcerting because perhaps this motto is firmly believed by its leaders and its people. As preposterous as it seems, maybe the rest of the world believes it a little too.

So when our professor asked, “Why study failed states?”

Because they’re inevitably a part of the world. Because when North Korea made threats to start a third world war, I had sleepless nights fearing for my home (Taiwan.)

Because it is emotional—and that makes the difference.


Goodbye, until next time.