The Washington Post

North Korea quietly enters the digital age


North Koreans work on library computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea, in April. North Korea is undergoing a digital revolution of sorts, even as it holds some of the strictest cyberspace policies in the world. (David Guttenfelder/AP)

North Korea, under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, is undergoing a digital revolution, and children are learning the ins and outs of computer use as early as primary school. Older students are taught more advanced programming skills, the Associated Press reports.

If you are thinking North Korea is new to computers, you’re wrong. A self-professed “Internet expert,” Kim Jong Il has been pushing for greater computer literacy for some time, having asked then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address during her visit to Pyongyang in 2000. According to local lore, the dictator has also said that people who do not know how to use computers were among the three types of fools in the 21st Century. The other two types were those who smoke and those who fail to appreciate music.


Library computers at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea, in March. (David Guttenfelder/AP)

This push to spread digital literacy is happening primarily among the privileged classes, as a majority of North Korea’s population is poor and suffering from starvation. But a slogan has emerged: “Breaking through the cutting edge.” An ode has even been created for “CNC” - computer numerical control - and the acronym has appeared on propaganda posters throughout the country.

There is speculation that the push for digital education in North Korea is part of an effort to prepare an army of hackers to infiltrate rival governments’ defense systems. Another theory is that the technology push is designed to promote King Jong Il’s tech-savvy and Swiss-educated son, Kim Jong Un, who is widely anticipated to succeed his father as the nation’s leader.

Regardless, the United States has resumed its formal outreach to North Korea, which has maintained a tenuous stalemate with South Korea after declaring a truce in 1953 that ended the Korean War. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Sunday that North Korea’s vice foreign minister would visit New York in what will be the first chance for diplomatic progress between the two countries in more than two years. The Washington Post’s Chico Harlan reports that North Korea’s willingness to accept the U.S. invitation was particularly significant.

(Read the full report from the The Associated Press)

Read more from The Washington Post :

U.S. invites N. Korean official to New York for talks

Comrades in Kimchi: The foreign and familiar in hidden North Korea

Fake Apple stores under investigation in China

Read more in Innovation from the Post

Emi Kolawole is the editor-in-residence at Stanford University's d.school, where she works on media experimentation and design.

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