North Korea, already one of the least-wired places in the world, appears to be cracking down on the use of the internet by even the small number of foreigners who can access it with relative freedom by blacklisting and blocking social media accounts or websites deemed to carry harmful content.
The move won’t be noticed by most in the North since hardly anyone has access to the internet. But it could signal increasing concern in Pyongyang over the flow of real-time photos, tweets and status updates getting out to the world and an attempt to further limit what the few North Koreans able to view the internet can see.
Warnings, in Korean and English, are now appearing on a wide array of sites, including social media such as Instagram, Tumblr and Flickr and websites like the South Korean news agency Yonhap, along with specific articles about the country. The warnings say the sites have been blacklisted for harmful content and cannot be accessed.
There has been no announcement of a policy change by the North Korean government or the North’s mobile service carrier, Koryolink, a joint venture with Egypt’s Orascom Telecom and Media Technology.
The explicit blacklisting of sites would be a break with past practice in North Korea, when officials monitored the internet activity of foreign users but did so quietly. The 3G data connection on mobile phones has not been disrupted and many sites, including Facebook and Twitter, continued to function normally.
But signs of concern that local eyes may be trying to peek into the crack opened for foreigners using the internet have been growing.
From late last year, Koryolink began blocking the function that allows smart phones to be turned into wifi hotspots that can share their internet connection with other nearby devices. Officials last year also tightened restrictions on wifi at embassies, to keep local residents from illegally “piggybacking” off of wifi signals near their compounds.
The scattershot nature of the blacklist warnings and the relative ease with which they can be circumvented would suggest a more tentative, possibly experimental, effort at controlling internet use than the sophisticated Great Firewall that makes it impossible for most Chinese to access Facebook or even the widespread government censorship of internet sites in South Korea.
“This effort seems a bit random,” said James Lewis, an expert in computer security who is a director and senior fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “Why send a warning about some sites, block some, but not block others? Either the DPRK is developing a more comprehensive policy but changed their mind, or they’ve been hacked.”
Mr Lewis added, however, that countries have the right to control their national networks.
“In practice, authoritarian regimes or religious regimes control more, democratic regimes control less,” he said. “It’s expensive, so there are often ways to circumvent controls, but most users are too lazy to do this.”