Before going on, I want everyone to locate and read Nothing to Envy, the best account yet of the lives of ordinary North Koreans. OK? Everyone done? The most striking scene in the book illustrated just how isolated the country is: North Koreans, in possession of an ancient mobile phone, huddled at an isolated spot on the northern border where one bar of reception would occasionally leak over from China.
In just the few years since that book was written, things have changed. It's getting harder and harder to keep the outside world out, even as the regime adapts its methods of control to stay up with technology. An article in The Diplomat investigates how North Korea is being dragged kicking and screaming in the 21st century.
There are now an estimated million 3G cell phones in the country, and computer access is becoming commonplace in universities, offices, and even some private homes. This is a seismic shift from the old days of the only information being available via television and radio, which remain hardwired to only pick up state-sponsored stations. The reason is, of course, money. As government officials court foreign companies to do business with and in North Korea, they've run into a wall. Globalism, which churns the gears of multinational business, simply can't touch the North.
North Korea hopes that access to some information technology tools will increase foreign investment in the country, and help build a more efficient economic system. Cell phones and the intranet will allow the state to control production and establish standards between Pyongyang and remote areas of the country. North Korea also hopes that the limited use of cell phones will encourage investment from overseas, in particular China. The lack of cell phones has been noted as one of the biggest challenges for investors dealing with North Korea.
If you believe cell phones and the internet facilitated the Arab Spring, you shouldn't expect a similar revolution here. The vast majority of computers operate only on the country's intranet, a closed system. Only "a few dozen families, including Kim Jong-Un's clan" have access to the worldwide internet. (So, if Mr. Kim has a Google alert out on his name, he can see this. Hi!) Likewise, most of the cell phones can only operate on the nation's Koryolink network, and can't make calls outside the country. They also receive daily propaganda messages on their phones, like this dispatch about "imperialists' high-handed, arbitrary practices."
There is hope. Just like how the mechanically inclined used to be able to take apart and alter TV and radio sets to pick up international broadcasts, once the population has access to phones and computers it'll be hard to keep them from going beyond their intended bounds. And as The Diplomat points out, the sheer number of telecom devices means it's no longer within the ability of the state to monitor every single user. This little freedom, however incremental, is progress, and its spread is inexorable.