Report: North Korea's elite plugged in online, not isolated

By Allen Cone  |  July 26, 2017 at 12:37 PM
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July 26 (UPI) -- North Korea's wealthiest citizens are "plugged into modern Internet society" even though they live under a regime cut off from most of the world, according to a report by a threat intelligence company.

The nation's elite -- unlike the vast majority of poor people -- surf the Web, shop on retail sites, browse Facebook and check their email on computers and smartphones, according to a report by Recorded Future, which is based in Somerville, Mass.

"Our analysis demonstrates that the limited number of North Korean leaders and ruling elite with access to the internet are much more active and engaged in the world, popular culture, international news, and with contemporary services and technologies than many outside North Korea had previously thought," Recorded Future wrote in the report. "North Korean leaders are not disconnected from the world and the consequences of their actions."

Researchers monitored North Korean Internet use from April 1 to July 6 to see how the country's leadership and upper class use the Web.

The vast majority of the nation's 25 million people are poor with no Internet access. An estimated 4 million people have access to mobile devices -- confined to a heavily censored, government-run national network called Kwangmyong.

"It's common to describe North Korea as an isolated country," Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an expert on North Korea and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told Vice News. "The truth is that the North Korean regime is not that isolated. Ordinary citizens are as a result of the regime's choices."

Internet access is available to universities, select businesses and the homes of top government or military officials.

What do they do online?

About 65 percent of their overall Internet traffic was devoted to gaming, including World of Tanks, and streaming online content, mainly China's Youku video-hosting service and iTunes, according to the researchers.

The report found the elite "check a Gmail account, access Google Cloud, check Facebook and MSN accounts, and view adult content."

"These leaders are doing many of the same things that we do when we wake up in the morning," said Priscilla Moriuchi of Recorded Future. "They're not isolated."

Recorded Future examined data from three ranges of URLs believed to be used by North Koreans and that were collected by Team Cymru, a nonprofit Internet security research group.

"If it's real, it's very interesting because it shows more access from North Koreans to the Internet and more access to information," technology journalist Martyn Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech website from Northern California told The Washington Post.

Recorded Future said there was a "near absence of malicious cyber activity" from the North Korean mainland. U.S. intelligence analysts say that North Korea conducts most cyber operations from outside the country -- primarily China.

The report said that "new tools that do not focus on Pyongyang and territorial North Korea are needed to achieve a lasting negative impact on the current Kim regime."

The researchers said: "Partnering with nations such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia, or others identified above, would enable the U.S. and other Western nations to circumvent uncooperative partners in China and Russia and exert pressure on the broad North Korean operational diaspora, which, because of the regime's dependency, would likely impose larger real costs on leadership."

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