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North Korea, innovation powerhouse?

Ever since Google CEO Eric Schmidt returned from his much-publicized trip to North Korea earlier this year, the world’s “hermit kingdom” appears to have undergone an innovation renaissance.

This undated file picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 11, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (center) inspecting the production process of the new touch-screen mobile phone "Arirang" in North Korea. (AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS)
This undated file picture released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 11, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (center) inspecting the production process of the new touch-screen mobile phone “Arirang” in North Korea. (AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS)

Just this past week, North Korea unveiled what it claims to be the first-ever Android phone that’s manufactured entirely in North Korea. Although at least one expert suspects the phones to be manufactured in China. Before the phone, there was a North Korean “Android tablet” loaded with apps, including Angry Birds and some suggested politically-correct reading.

To top it all off, a North Korean news organization recently launched a $10,000 crowdfunding project for citizen journalism that will pry open the nation to the world.

What’s going on here? Wasn’t North Korea supposed to be just about the most backward place on the planet?

First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that the innovation revolution in North Korea has been in the works for some time – early signs were emerging two years ago that North Korea was taking the first steps in embracing the digital revolution.  They had computers in the classroom, even if those computers weren’t actually connected to the Internet. Thanks to its geographical proximity to China and its tentative embrace of technology that’s not seen as politically threatening to the state, North Korea might actually be able to flip the innovation switch. This summer has seen some of the most exciting technological developments for North Korea since the nation introduced 3G wireless connectivity for foreigners.  All of a sudden, one gets the distinct hope that millions of tiny screens in the hands of the North Korean people will lead to an economic revival.

However, just as when the communist nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union first embraced capitalism, don’t expect too much, too soon. That Android phone is supposed to have a “touch screen” and “high pixels,” but not much else is known about it, other than what has appeared on North Korean state media. Internet connectivity is iffy, and appears to be limited to the nation’s intranet. The same thing goes for the new tablets.

What’s important here, however, is that the forces of Internet openness appear to be too strong to resist. And it’s not hard to see why. Even smartphones and tablets without Wi-Fi connectivity can be a tremendous boon for any developing nation. Those benefits can go beyond improved workplace productivity or the migration of new technology to new areas of the economy. Everyone gains from the free flow of information around the globe. And then there’s the psychological impact of knowing that your nation is, in at least some way, opening up to the world. The power of that knowledge is incalculable.

Of course, there are some caveats to all of this. There’s no guarantee this new technology will be used for good. At the same time that media reports of smart phones and computers are making their way to the West, so are reports that North Korea is essentially setting up an easily-policed national intranet and then recruiting an online hacker force – an online troll force numbering in the thousands – to wreak havoc on the West’s Internet. It may not be a cyberwar, but it’s a discouraging sign at a time when the nation already seems to have a penchant for displaying its military hardware in politically insensitive ways. So, as quickly as it may rev up its fledgling innovation engine, it may just as soon shut it down.

Lastly, there’s the extent to which technology has an impact on diplomacy and international relations. Terms such as “transparency”, “openness” and “connectivity” are now part of diplomatic initiatives to open up nations to the world. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, when they travel abroad, are the new ambassadors of American values as much as American technology. We are living, as Eric Schmidt notes in his new book, in a new digital era, reshaping the future of people, nations and business.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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