Google Maps charts, Instagram pictures and tweets are all slowly emerging out of the Hermit Kingdom
To celebrate the launch of our new Korean sister site which went live this weekend, today we're investigating the cultural influence and innovation of the country's most exciting creatives. Explore the world of K-pop with new interviews with B.A.P, Taeyang and 4minute, meet Snowpiercer actress Ko Ah-sung and take a look at North Korea's life online. Check back here for more throughout the day.
South Korea may be a liberal, access–all-areas hub of social media activity, but its northern neighbour has a slightly more restricted policy. While South Korea has the swiftest broadband speeds in the world as well as Kakao, a social media platform with nearly 140million users, North Korea has a strictly regulated and monitored intranet called Kwangmyong ('Bright') ensuring that any news from the outside world cannot corrupt the country's highly propagandised flow of information. Access to the internet is reserved for the elite – or foreigners.
In 2013 a landmark was reached when the Korean-American Associated Press journalist Jean H.Lee sent the first tweet out of North Korea using Koryolink, a service launched in 2008. Koryolink is a 3G cellular service that covers all major towns, trainlines and highways in the country, but regulations prevent it from direct international communications or internet service, restricting it to voice communication, text message and web browsing in North Korea only. Lee's tweet felt like communication from a distant planet, albeit one 120 miles away from Seoul.
David Guttenfelder is a photojournalist who's managed to document North Korea beautifully using Instagram. After the country's ban on smartphones was lifted in March 2013, he used his iPhone to take snapshots of life in North Korea and posted them online – although that's still a process wrapped up in bureaucratic tape. "I have to ask permission in writing wherever I go," he told the Guardian. "And there are some very difficult discussions after the pictures are published – we often lock horns because they have a very different idea of how Korea should be covered." His photos are a candid glimpse into the country's desolate atmosphere – it appears a place that seems oddly still.
Kwangmyong is still littered with restrictions. Google Maps launched in North Korea last week, even though there are barely any people online in the country and few car owners. The app lets you plan a journey through the country but typically, any attempts to navigate out of North Korea are shut down. Until 2013 the country appeared as a grey void on the rest of the world's Google Maps, but slowly detail is being added, including an image of the controversial prison labour camp Hoeryong (Camp 22).
There are an estimated one thousand to five thousand websites that North Koreans have access to, all of them run by the government. Uriminzokkiri, North Korea's central news agency, now has a YouTube channel: uploads are frequent but the view count is painfully low – not really surprising given that hardly anybody is allowed online. @uriminzok, the Twitter account for the agency, has also appeared – the Korean-only feed has nearly 20,000 followers.
North Korea's tentative embrace of the internet may hint at a softening stance on censorship, but there's a possiblity that the government have realised that they must engage with the internet in some way in order to protect their economy. A total connection to the rest of the world seems unlikely, but there's evidence that the internet is slowly creeping in to North Korea.