The Austin Chronicle

Social Media in North Korea

By Ashley Moreno, March 11, 2013, 10:00am, SXSW

In the discussion on Twitter use in North Korea, Jean H. Lee (Korea Bureau Chief for the Associated Press) made it clear: There is one North Korea for locals, and one for foreigners.

On Saturday, Eric Carvin, Social Media Editor for the AP, interviewed Lee about technology and social media adoption in North Korea. Lee explained that access to technology – hardware like computers and cell phones, as well as networks, like cell service and the Internet – depends heavily on whether you are a foreigner or a local. And if you are a local, whether you are a wealthy citizen living in Pyongyang, or you are a less affluent citizen living in a rural area.

“Foreigners do have access to broadband Internet. Very fast. No firewalls, which is a relief after being in China,” said Lee. Earlier this year, Lee broke the story that North Korea had a new 3G, wireless data network for cell phones. Lee also sent the first tweet over that network via her handle @newsjean and posted the first Instagram photos. “The North Koreans, however, have very limited access to the international Internet,” said Lee. “They have their own intranet, which is fairly readily accessible if you have access to a computer on a network at a university or a library or something like that. That gives them access to the state media, information sources that are vetted by the government, and picked and pulled from the Internet and posted to their intranet site.”

While North Koreans cannot access the “international Internet,” even through the new 3G service, this does not mean that they do not know it exists. This is especially true in places like Pyongyang. And access to hardware is increasing. “Koreans are Koreans, whether you are in North Korea or South Korea,” said Lee. “They really love gadgets, and we’re starting to see a lot more electronic devices. There is a lot of fascination, and any tourist who visits probably knows that locals are fascinated by whatever gadgets they have with them.”

More than a million North Koreans do have cell phones. “They’re very expensive,” said Lee. “But for those who can afford it, it means they can communicate fairly easily with their friends and families. They use the phones in many ways like we do. They take pictures with their cell phones. They send text messages. They read the newspaper. They read books. And they talk a lot, including in movies.” So much so that Lee says theaters now have PSAs asking filmgoers to avoid talking on cell phones during the movie … and not to remove their shoes, which Lee joked is “apparently a North Korean thing.”

North Koreans do have social networks within their international Internet, most of which look similar to the one in this photo from Lee’s Instagram feed. It’s a birthday bulletin board where you can leave posts for friends and family. She didn’t say specifically whether or not other boards are full of cats, but it’s probably safe to assume there is at least one.

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