North Korea’s Cyber Attacks and Dual Tactics
Since 2003, North Korea has been repeatedly accused of launching cyberattacks against the U.S. Treasury and Federal Trade Commissioners and the South Korean presidency and military websites (Sang-Hun, 2013, as cited in Warf, 2014 ). By 2016, a large-scale cyberattack orchestrated and targeted by the Lazarus Group, a North Korean hacker group, against the National Bank of Bangladesh attempted to steal up to $1 billion and ultimately stole $81 million. These attacks are not isolated incidents but are part of North Korea’s long history of strategic operations. According to the South Korean government, in 2022, North Korea illegally acquired more than $700 million worth of digital currency through cyber intrusions. A U.S. official revealed in an interview that cyberattacks generate about half of North Korea’s foreign exchange earnings. The persistence of the cyberattacks underscores the North Korean government’s continued threat in the online realm. The North Korean government is continuously developing its hacker organization, using illegally obtained funds as an independent to support its nuclear and ballistic missile programs (Lim, 2022).
You may think North Korea has mastered top cyber technology, but is this really the truth? North Korea’s cyber strategy is twofold: it encourages its elite forces to develop advanced cyber warfare skills; on the other, it restricts its citizens from accessing any outside world information.
Splinternet and Polarized Example – North Korea
Digital connectedness in the Internet era of the twenty-first century is not merely a result of technology but also of the interaction of social, political, and economic forces (Gehrig et al., 2021). The Internet is rapidly becoming fragmented as several nations build their own Internet policies and regulations across national borders or regions (Grinberg, 2018). The phenomenon of the “Splinternet” hangs over the Internet like a shadow, potentially jeopardizing the primary purpose of this platform for communication and connectivity on a global scale, which could result in the segregation and confinement of information. The “Great Firewall” is a censorship and filtering system implemented by the Chinese government to monitor and restrict access to the Internet in China, the content of which is monitored and regulated by the Communist Party. Russia’s proposal for a “Sovereign Internet” seeks to create a domestic Internet architecture independent of the global Internet.
Figure 2: North Korea’s Core Officials Kim Jong-un and Others in 2019 from REUTERS
Nevertheless, North Korea provides a stark illustration of how to conceptualize the phenomenon of the ” splinternet “. The North Korean government exercises direct and complete control over information and communication technologies (ICT) for its 25 million citizens, and Internet access is limited to the government and a small elite, thus solidifying the dictatorship’s dominance of Internet strategy (Gerschewski & Dukalskis, 2018). As information flows to high-level military and power centres, it is processed and interpreted by numerous competing institutions. Information is often viewed and interpreted through distorted lenses of political dogma, historical world-views, authoritarian cultural rules, and hostility toward the United States (Oh et al., 2004).
Information Confinement of North Korean Citizens
In 2000, the official intranet Kwangmyong, which provides the leading core web service for the population, was established (Warf, 2014) and provided only some essential domestic content, such as news and educational resources. Through this centralized network management, the government can strictly monitor the online behaviour of its citizens, preventing them from accessing external anti-government or unofficial content, as well as monitoring and suppressing opponents (Lim, 2022). This ensures that only information aligned with the government’s position and ideology is disseminated, strengthening control over domestic information and public opinion. One of the coding directives stipulated that each time a name in the Kim family appeared on a website, it would be in a slightly larger font than the rest of the text on the page. This inconspicuous visual difference forcibly shapes an atmosphere of admiration for the leader that is imposed on every North Korean citizen who visits these platforms.
Any external information that might challenge existing power structures or perceptions is seen as a threat in this environment. All print and electronic media operate under the strict scrutiny of the party and the Government, with only a minimal amount of screened external and domestic news entering their information streams. Any story that is perceived to harm the leadership or political party can result in the reporter or editor responsible for the story facing severe consequences, including job loss or exile (Oh et al., 2004). Listening to foreign broadcasts, watching foreign video or audio, owning a frequency-tuned radio, and reading foreign newspapers or magazines can lead to extreme imprisonment (Oh et al., 2004). The result is that citizens have a narrow and distorted worldview based almost exclusively on the North Korea government’s propaganda. Despite North Korea’s strict information quarantine and threats of imprisonment and torture against its citizens, there is still a so-called “silent openness” in the country – people are accessing and exchanging multimedia content from outside, especially South Korea and the United States, through smuggling and illegal means (Wurtz, 2020).
Human Rights Topics in the North Korea
In the mid-to-late 1990s, North Korea experienced a severe famine that killed an estimated 600,000 to 1 million of its 20 million people. Faced with famine, torture, thought control and oppression, few North Korea inhabitants could illegally access the Internet and glimpse the truth about the outside world. This knowledge triggers their urge to flee, hoping to find a more stable and better life elsewhere. The number of border crossers spiked after Kim Il Sung’s death, reaching nearly 3,000 in 2009 but declining to about 1,000 by 2019 (Kim et al., 2023). According to official South Korean data, South Korea has welcomed more than 33,000 North Korean escapees since 1998, with about 1,047 settling in by 2019 (Wurtz, 2020). The reality, however, is that after years of brainwashing by the government, North Korean refugees have a social adjustment rate of less than 15 per cent, leading to their marginalization in several areas (Ha, 2009, as cited in Kim et al., 2023).
In an era when most countries strive to promote transparency, accountability and human rights, the North Korean persists in its policy of a closed and oppressive web of division, making it one of the worst human rights situations in the world. The North Korean government’s strict information control and brainwashing tactics against its citizens have been widely condemned and criticized from a human rights and civil liberties perspective. Public hearings by the United Nations Human Rights Council have revealed the harsh conditions prevalent in North Korea’s prisons, such as forced labour, torture, rape, and public executions, where citizens can be arbitrarily arrested and sentenced without cause (Wurtz, 2020). The North Korean government’s highly repressive and informationally isolated strategy allows its citizens to live in fear for long periods, unable to access and understand what is happening in the outside world and speak out for their fundamental rights.
Against the backdrop of an era when the Internet bridges vast distances and connects civilizations, North Korea remains an enigma, an isolated kingdom that stands out in a fragmented cyber world. North Korea’s splinternet status and international role highlights a unique and complex divide in today’s global political and technological landscape. North Korea is a country that maintains extreme isolation in the digital age, while its cyberattacks and international criminal activity demonstrate its clear technological influence over the outside world. For North Korea’s residents, they are denied access to global information, culture, and economic opportunities, while at the same time being at risk of government surveillance and repression. North Korean citizens are beginning to crave more freedom of information, and the key to providing them with this freedom may lie in the assistance and cooperation of the international community.
Gehrig, L., Bachhuber, E., & Goychayev, R. (2021). EVALUATING NUCLEAR SECURITY IMPLICATIONS OF THE SPLINTERNET. https://conferences.iaea.org/event/181/contributions/15444/attachments/8463/11277/551_Splinternet_Final.pdf
Gerschewski, J., & Dukalskis, A. (2018). How the Internet Can Reinforce Authoritarian Regimes: The Case of North Korea. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 19, 12–19. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26567522
Grinberg, D. (2018). Scott Malcomson: Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce are Fragmenting the World Wide Web. New Global Studies, 12(2), 293–295. https://doi.org/10.1515/ngs-2018-0003
Kim, H., Kim, Y., Yoon, J., Nam, J. K., & Kim, Y. (2023). A phenomenological study on the North Korean refugees’ trauma experience and recovery process during the escape and resettlement in South Korea. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 92, 101742. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2022.101742
Lim, J. (2022). Digital Joseon: Digital Transformation Under North Korea’s Five-Year Plan. North Korean Review, 18(1), 72–105. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27160576
Oh, K., Bermudez, J., Gause, K., Hassig, R., Mansourov, A., & Smith, D. (2004). North Korean Policy Elites. North Korean Review, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.3172/nkr.4.2.68
Warf, B. (2014). The Hermit Kingdom in cyberspace: unveiling the North Korean internet. Information, Communication & Society, 18(1), 109–120. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2014.940363
Wurtz, M. (2020). The Impact of Foreign Media on Perceptions of North Korea: A The Impact of Foreign Media on Perceptions of North Korea: A Textual Analysis of Defector Testimonies and Experiences Textual Analysis of Defector Testimonies and Experiences. https://scholarworks.bellarmine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=ugrad_theses