Even the idea of a nationwide Internet outage can be panic-inducing for those of us who are addicted to our smartphones. But in North Korea, such outages are routine — and ultimately affect almost no one.
The secretive nation’s connection to the global Internet went dark for more than an hour Monday morning, according to Internet monitoring firm Dyn. But this was roughly the 15th time North Korea had suffered a disruption in connectivity this year alone, according to the company’s director of Internet analysis, Doug Madory.
North Korea’s main digital artery is managed by the state-run Internet provider and connects through China. But only an estimated few thousand North Koreans have access to the global Internet — and those people are members of the privileged elite, the military, or part of the hermit kingdom’s propaganda machine.
The rest of the population has access to heavily monitored national intranet of approved sites called the Kwangmyung — if they have access to anything at all, the Associated Press reported last year. If the Internet is the information superhighway, you can think of a national intranet as a sort of information cul de sac.
This lack of reliance on the Internet puts North Korea in a weird position where it doesn’t really matter if its access goes down. “It’s not even clear that it’s a priority to have the Internet up,” said Madory. “It’s not really part of their economy, whereas in other places it’s a core utility of life.”
There are only a few dozen North Korean sites accessible to the rest of the world, and the nation’s first online shopping site didn’t launch until last month, according to the state-run news agency.
In some ways, this gives North Korea a defensive advantage when it comes to competing in the much hyped digital battlefield. “North Korea’s hermit infrastructure creates a cyber-terrain that deters reconnaissance,” an HP Security briefing noted last year. “Today North Korea’s air-gapped networks and prioritization of resources for military use provide both a secure and structured base of operations for cyber operations and a secure means of communications.”
Last December the United States pointed fingers at North Korea for a cyberattack on Sony Pictures — presumably in retaliation for a comedy film about a CIA-backed assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un by tabloid journalists — and promised a proportional response.
North Korea’s Internet suffered a nearly 10-hour Internet outage not long afterward, which it blamed on the United States in a statement that called President Obama a “monkey.” The United States never claimed responsibility for the outage, and many thought it was likely the result of hacktivist pranksters, although Bloomberg reported earlier this year that Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said it was a response to the Sony attack without saying who exactly was responsible.
The December disruption was longer than most others, and observers said it appeared to be the result of an attack that flooded the nations’ network with traffic. But data from Dyn shows that the nation saw many other outages and disruptions throughout last year:
Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.