Technological Triptych: Scott Bruce on DPRK Digitization

By | November 25, 2012 | No Comments

Digital changes in Korea will be uneven. Some areas will see revolution, some evolution, some stasis; but all under tight Kim control.

At a November 24 panel focusing on the DPRK at the London School of Economics, veteran North Korea hands Ken Gause and Bruce Cumings were asked to speculate on the meaning of the Arab Spring for North Korea. After all, the role of social media in prompting those uprisings has become well known, and the specter of a Syrian-style civil war breaking out in North Korea has been on the minds of more than a few people.  While Dr. Cumings’ prepared remarks at LSE dredged up the deepest-submerged Confucian and monarchist foundations of the DPRK system (the King’s two bodies, as it were), he turned to the question of technology with alacrity: North Korea has no intention of becoming the next Syria, or the next Libya, he said emphatically. The former UK Ambassador to North Korea, James Hoare, spoke softly, but his words fairly thundered: Hoare told the audience that he had been in Pyongyang on the day that Qaddafi had been murdered, and that his DPRK contacts knew about the event immediately, and were seeking details and confirmation from him. Such remarks remind us that no matter who we are or what our analytical bent toward North Korea may be —  historian, diplomat, intelligence analyst, humanitarian, defector, fellow traveller, or some combination thereof —   none of us is immune from the impact of technology on how we understand the DPRK and how North Korea will continue to interface with the outside world.  Two alums of the ever-forward Nautilus Institute now affiliated with SinoNK welcome us to that new world. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Technological Triptych: Scott Bruce on DPRK Digitization

by Roger Cavazos

As anyone who has been following North Korea in the Kim Jong-un era can testify, the DPRK’s journey to digitization continues apace. But what does this development really mean mean, and, in particular, what does is increased digitization mean for how we understand that secretive state? The digital veil shrouding North Korea has recently been parted and parsed by Scott Bruce in the form of three new articles and papers. In these articles, the analyst employs years of experience in dealing with the DPRK to show what these kinds of changes really mean.

Chronicling multiple aspects of the digital deluge, Bruce reveals how the North Korean state has pursued these developments through the prism of control, seeking to harness communications technologies to add confidence to the maintenance of power, rather than to hand over genuine freedoms to the people.

“While cell phones and the domestic intranet could be used to undermine the state, they can also be used to support the state control apparatus,” he points out in one, The Information Age. “Koryolink users, for example, receive daily texts of North Korean propaganda on their phones… As Alexandre Mansourov notes, the venture has been blessed by the highest levels of the state security mechanism, which would not happen unless the security apparatus of the regime believes it could control the impact of IT use.”

Just as a Hieronymous Bosch Triptych centers on competing themes, so Scott Bruce captures the tension inherent in the struggle between digitization, empowerment and control. With control trumping empowerment, he concludes, meaning that “those expecting that cell phones will lead to a Pyongyang Spring will be disappointed.”

In the Foucaultian prism of mutual surveillance

However, it is not all wine and roses. If it were, North Korea would surely not have waited so long before taking the plunge. As Scott Bruce points out, “Although the state believes that it can control the advent of IT in North Korea, this does represent a fundamental shift in the role of the state.” In essence, it means that totalitarian notions of absolute control have been abandoned.

“In the past, the State Security Department was able to monitor all communications within the state,” he writes. But, “With at least a million cell phones in the country, the state will now have to choose which calls to monitor, probably focusing on foreigners and senior government and military officials.”

That’s not all. “Furthermore, the ability to call remote areas of the country allows information to be disseminated in a way that was previously unthinkable. Finally, the North Korean state has blessed the use of information technology in order to acquire scientific information from abroad to support development in North Korea.  The ability to access foreign development data, even if it has been screened by the state, allows those with access to the intranet to become active information consumers.”

A North Korean receives a text on his 3G Koryolink cell phone under the watchful gaze of the Great and Dear Leaders, respectively.

Interesting times indeed.

Marching in lockstep with “The Information Age,” Scott’s triple-pronged attack on our understanding of North Korea’s electronic emergence continues with “A Double-Edged Sword: Information Technology in North Korea” and Policy Forum 11-38: “North Korea’s Digital Transformation: Implications for North Korea Policy.”

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