THE WORLD POST
02/07/2015 15:53 BST | Updated 02/07/2015 15:59 BST

North Korea Cracks Down On Use Of Internet

In this Tuesday, July 8, 2014 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, visits Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of its first leader, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim seemed to have somehow hurt his leg enough to require a slight, but visible, limp as he marched across the stage Tuesday to assume his position of honor. He limped again as he left the room when the event was over. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT

TOKYO (AP) — 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. With no official confirmation, it was impossible to rule out the possibility the warnings resulted from a hack of some sort.

The explicit blacklisting of sites would be a break with past practice in North Korea, when officials most likely monitored the Internet activity of foreign users but did so quietly. The 3G data connection on mobile phones itself 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 to use 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 use at embassies, probably to keep local residents from illegally "piggybacking" off of wifi signals near their compounds.

If not the result of a hack, the scattershot nature of the blacklist warnings and the relative ease with which they can be circumvented would suggest a more tentative and 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 D.C.-based Center 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."

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."

Shutting down a particular user or group of users on a social media site isn't difficult. It can be done either by blocking access to IP addresses or by malicious codes. Instagram itself can and does shut down accounts reported for spam or inappropriate content. Filters to block out specific sites, like the ones used by parents to keep children from viewing adult content, aren't unusual either.

For most North Koreans, official interference with online activity is anything but subtle.

Instead of the World Wide Web, North Korea has its own "intranet," which looks a lot like the Internet but is sealed off from the global web and allows users to access only a tiny number of government-sanctioned websites. The few North Koreans who are granted Internet access — including some government and military officials, IT technicians and computer science students — get it only in public settings under close supervision.

Cell phones are now a common sight in North Korea. There are more than 2 million in use. But while many have access to the domestic intranet and can be used for email and playing games, they cannot be used for international calls and, of course, do not have access to the Internet.

That's why the North's decision in 2013 to allow Koryolink to begin providing the 3G data service for mobile devices, while restricted to foreigners willing to pay a fairly hefty price, was seen as a litmus test of how far North Korea might be willing to go with online freedoms.

While regular users are very few in number, photos from North Korea on Instagram, in particular, have since provided a unique and largely unfiltered window on daily life in North Korea, albeit one limited by the normal restrictions on what foreigners in the North are allowed to see in the first place.

But they have also posed a quandary for North Korean officials who are highly concerned about the flow of information and images in and out of the country. Just days before the blacklist warnings were first seen in Pyongyang by The AP, photos of a fire that broke out on June 11 at a major hotel in Pyongyang were widely posted and viewed on the Internet, though the North's official media did not cover the incident or release any photographs.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a building side as the sun rises over Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along the road in North Korea's North Hwanghae province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans say the late leader Kim Jong Il was born around Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues drive in Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Koreans venerate Mount Paektu for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the outskirts of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean farmer stands in a field at Chanpyong Farm in Taehongdan in North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014 photo, a North Korean woman walks on the peak of Mt. Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014 photo, a North Korean national television station camera crew records the scenery from the peak of Mt. Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, a North Korean man driving an ox cart protects himself in a rainstorm south of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, a propaganda billboard stands in a field south of Samsu, in North Korea's Ryanggang province. The sign reads: "Let's complete the tasks set forth in the New Year's address." (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)