Image: Wikimedia Commons
A business park in North Korea will soon have (limited) access to the internet, according to news reports.
The Register wrote that an industrial park in the Kaesong Industrial Region will house internet-connected PCs by the first half of this year. The Daily NK explained that the first step to connectivity will be an internet cafe with 20 computers but after that, company offices will also get hooked up.
They quoted a spokesperson from the Ministry of Unification—a department of the South Korean government that works on unifying the two Koreas—as saying, “We are planning to launch the basic level of Internet services at the Kaesong Industrial Complex starting in the first half of this year,” and adding, “Officials and employees in the North's border city will be able to use most of the online services now available in South Korea.”
Anywhere else in the world, the idea of a business centre getting internet would be unremarkable—indeed, the opposite would be pretty shocking. But in North Korea, of course, web access is extremely restricted. Only the country’s elite have access to the internet as we know it, and the rest of the population has little to no access or can get on to the extremely limited, state-run “Kwangmyong” intranet system in libraries.
So the introduction of internet as we know it—or at least a likely very censored, highly regulated version thereof—is a big deal, even if it’s only on a room full of computers.
The reason it’s happening at Kaesong is because the industrial park there, although geographically located north of the border, is in fact a collaborative project between North and South Korea. Business Korea describes it as “the symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation” and explains that it “is home to some 120 South Korean companies that hire more than 44,600 North Koreans, providing a major revenue source for the cash-strapped communist country.”
News wire Yonhap News reported that details of the internet access will be worked through by South Korean operator KT and North Korea’s telecommunications corporation KPTC. Quite who will have access is unclear (you can bet it will remain rather restricted), but the benefits are obvious. Business Korea quoted a ministry official: “Considering the fact that workers there have to communicate via phone or fax machines to those in the South, the Internet linkage will boost efficiency, cut costs, and guarantee security.”
It’s also a pretty positive sign when it comes to relations between North Korea and South Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Park was effectively closed by North Korea last year, when the country withdrew all of its workers and blocked South Koreans from crossing the border following tensions over South Korea’s military exercises with the US. It re-opened in September (with a special agreement that North Korea couldn’t enact a similar shutdown again). A couple of weeks ago, the park got a new RFID system that will also make it easier for South Korean employees to access it over the border.
As well as making workers' lives a little easier, South Korean officials are hoping that internet access will attract more business and foreign investment to the park. It’s also perhaps a sign of things to come at the new Kaesong Hi-Tech Industrial Park, for which construction began towards the end of last year.
It'll be curious to see how this foray into web access within North Korean borders pans out, but don't expect to see your average North Korean trading bitcoins or surfing the web on their homegrown smartphone any time soon.