SEOUL, May 28 (UPI) -- North Koreans have been given a rare opportunity to surf the Internet, play online games and use e-mail as an Internet cafe has recently opened in the world's most shut-off country, a South Korean software company said Tuesday.
An Internet cafe, or "PC room," was established on May 18 in the capital of Pyongyang, said Kim Beom-hoon, the head of Hoonnet, which has launched a joint venture project to develop Internet game software with North Korea.
The public computer room was the first in the communist country. So far, foreigners in North Korea have depended on foreign e-mail servers via expensive international phone lines available only in a few hotels in Pyongyang.
The Korea Lotto Joint Venture, set up by Hoonnet and North Korea's Jangsang Trading Corp., established a 66-square-meter PC room equipped with 10 computers and amenities such as billiard tables and table tennis, Kim said in a statement.
"All North Korean citizens are allowed to use the PC room," he said. But ordinary North Korean citizens will not be able to use the Internet cafe due to high fees. The basic fee for the PC room is $50 for 30 minutes, with an additional $10 charged for 10 minutes thereafter. The average monthly wage of North Korean workers is about $28-$46.
North Korea has offered a limited e-mail service since last December, according to South Korean government officials. North Korean citizens and foreign visitors were allowed to exchange electronic mail for one hour per day through the North's recently launched membership e-mail service site, "Silibank," based in the northeast Chinese city of Shenyang.
Although non-members cannot use the service, it is the first time that the cloistered country has allowed e-mail exchanges between its citizens and foreigners. North Korea still does not allow its people unrestricted access to the Internet and it is not known whether North Korean authorities censor the e-mail.
"Opening of the first computer room in the North can be a sign that the country would seek ways to acquire advanced information technology," said Oh Seung-ryol, a fellow at state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.
In recent years, North Korea has placed policy priority on the development of the high-tech information industry, while establishing computer communications networks and introducing computer education programs to many schools.
Kim Jong Il, the leader of the reclusive country, is known as an avid Internet user. On trips to China and Russia, Kim had traveled by his private train, which has an office equipped with a PC connected to the Web. A South Korean envoy who recently met the North Korean leader said Kim loves to browse the site of South Korea's presidential office of Blue House.
The North has its own domestic computer network called Kwangmyung, meaning "light," but it is not linked to the Internet. North Korea's Choson Computer Center has agreed with a South Korean computer firm to jointly set up satellite Internet links between the country and the rest of the world.
But many analysts and officials here say North Korea will have to wait for years before the e-business service will become popular among its citizens because Internet use remains strictly controlled in North Korea.
"I believe the PC room in the North is not for Internet use, but for just exhibition of computer facilities without connection to the Web," Oh told United Press International. "But I expect North Korea to improve computer rooms as part of efforts to develop the IT industry," he said.