The Korea National Insurance Corp., North Korea’s state insurance company, has its own website.
The company, which in the past has been accused of orchestrating international insurance fraud, offers basic information about itself and its financial health. While the site appears to be new, the information on it in both English and Korean dates to only 2012.
The official financial information shows a business that’s growing — just be sure to read the chart from right to left — with the amount of premiums and net worth up every year since 2008. But net profits have been sliding in recent years, down 40 percent in the two year period from 2010 to 2012.
According to the data, which cannot be independently verified, the KNIC made a profit of 5.5 billion North Korean won in 2012 and its net worth was 61.3 billion won. That’s $42.6 million and $471.3 million respectively at the official exchange rate of 130 won to the U.S. dollar. At the black market exchange rate of 8,000 won to the dollar, those figures drop to $693,000 in profit and a net worth of $7.6 million.
North Korea has strict controls on internal movement, a scarcity of private car ownership and almost no Internet users. And now it’s also got satellite navigation through Google Maps.
The service is available through the web and mobile apps and allows users to calculate travel time by car or foot between points of interest in the Google database. It’s limited to roads that have already been mapped out on the service.
It’s been over a year since Google began adding roads, buildings, railway lines and other data to its map of North Korea. The country had for years appeared as a grey void but that began to change when users were asked to help start building the map.
“We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone with Google Map Maker,” the company said in January 2013. “From this point forward, any further approved updates to the North Korean maps in Google Map Maker will also appear on Google Maps.”
As a result of that call for action, and perhaps additional information obtained by Google, users can now do things like this:
The most popular North Korea-related YouTube channel was deleted by the video website on Wednesday for copyright infringement.
[April 26 update: The channel is now back. Read on for details of how that happened]
The Stimme Koreas channel had amassed around 15 million views for the hundreds of videos it hosted, ranking it above second-placed North Korea Today.
It had attracted more than 12,000 subscribers but today all those subscribers saw was a blank page with a message from YouTube:
“YouTube account stimmekoreas has been terminated because we received multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement from claimants including: DPRKMusicChannel.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification will launch on Monday a new web portal focused on North Korea.
The North Korea Information Portal, or NK Info for short, is intended to provide South Koreans with up to date information on the DPRK, the Unification Ministry said.
Here are some screenshots of what you can expect from Monday, January 27:
Twenty balloons, each carrying several large bags of propaganda materials, were launched on Wednesday from Paju, close to the inter-Korean border, according to Human Rights Foundation, a New York-based NGO that focuses on closed societies.
“These balloons are an information lifeline to ordinary North Koreans, who have no means to learn about the world beyond the lies of their government,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF in a statement.
The bags collectively contained around 500,000 leaflets, DVDs with South Korean TV dramas, radios that can be tuned to listen to foreign broadcasts and the USB sticks, said HRF.
Balloon launches across the border have been going on for several years. The bags of propaganda typically have timers that release their contents at preset times when they are likely to be over North Korean territory.
The hope of the human rights groups that launch them is that the contents of the bags scatter over a wide are and are picked up, read and used by North Korean citizens.
HRF said it had originally planned to launch materials across the border in June 2013, but the launch was blocked by South Korean police. At the time, North Korea’s state media issued threats against groups planning the balloon launch and the South Korean government prevented it from happening apparently to reduce tensions between the two countries.
The group promised to continue its efforts this year and said it would “expand its support for technologies and initiatives aimed at disrupting the North Korean regime.”
The app, iJuche, was developed and published in late 2013 and was highlighted on NorthKoreaTech earlier this week. That publicity was apparently enough to get it blocked.
“I just got a call from a person at Apple informing me that iJuche has been found to be in violation of South Korea’s “National Security Law” and has been removed from the South Korean App Store,” said Peter Curtis, the developer of the app.
Users in South Korea that have already downloaded a copy of iJuche, or those with App Store subscriptions in other countries, should still be able to access news through the app, but new users won’t find it available for download in the Korean App Store.
South Korea’s National Security Law is a decades-old law that bans anti-state acts that endanger national security. In recent years, this has been used to ban the redistribution of North Korean propaganda on the Internet.
That means many websites from North Korean and those sympathetic to the country are blocked from local Internet users. It’s also been used to prosecute local Internet users who re-distribute North Korean content, sometimes by simply posting it on a website.
The law has many critics who maintain it restricts freedom of speech and doesn’t belong in a modern, developed society like the South Korea of today.
To-date, most of the sites and services blocked under the law have been those in Korean, although late last year a portion of the NK News website was also cut off from South Korean Internet connections.
KCNA Watch, a service developed by New Zealand-based Frank Feinstein, collates the daily output of KCNA from its website and makes it easy to navigate and search. It’s often easier to find articles on KCNA Watch than through the official KCNA website, and Feinstein’s site maintains the original versions of stories.
The importance of that feature was highlighted last month when KCNA deleted hundreds of articles mentioning Jang Song Thaek, the purged uncle of Kim Jong Un. The articles remain available through KCNA Watch.
The decision was relayed in a letter from British Foreign Secretary William Hague to the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. The BBC World Service is currently funded by a grant from the Hague’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although that’s about to change.
“The World Service has re-examined the case for broadcasts into North Korea, considering both the feasibility of such broadcasts and how effective they would be in reaching North Korean audiences,” the letter said.
“On the basis of this work, the World Service board recently reached the conclusion that it is not currently possible for the World Service to offer a meaningful, effective and cost-effective service.”
Hague’s letter was sent earlier in January, just a couple of weeks after several U.K. politicians backed a campaign to get a BBC Korean service on the air.
The campaign was launched by a group called “The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK)” and argues that North Koreans would benefit from independent sources of news and radio is the best way of doing that.
Hague’s letter detailed some of the reasoning behind the BBC board’s decision.
Here’s an examination of the claims:
- “A shortwave radio service would reach an insignificant percentage of the population due to a combination of low numbers of shortwave-capable radios, ignorance of different wavebands and DPRK signal jamming.”
This is an interesting finding, especially given the current presence of the roughly ten radio stations that use shortwave to reach North Korea.
To be sure, there’s no sure way to know exactly how many people are listening to the programs, although surveys of defectors – the only audience research possible because it takes place outside of the country – indicate at least some North Koreans are listening.
A 2010 survey carried out by BBG, the umbrella organization that runs Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, found 27 percent of 250 defectors surveyed reported listening to foreign radio. That includes both South Korean stations broadcasting on mediumwave (AM) and shortwave broadcasts.
In its 2012 report “A Quiet Opening,” InterMedia, the company that conducts audience surveys for BBG, said that DVDs had been the most effective vehicle for foreign media in North Korea, with 48 percent of respondents reporting their use.
“However, radio occupies a unique space in the North Korean media environment, as the only real-time, direct source of sensitive outside news available nationwide. From the perspective of those attempting to deliver outside information, the relative speed and ease of disseminating content into North Korea from abroad, via radio, gives broadcasting a distinct distribution advantage over other media types that must be smuggled into the country.”
The BBC does have a point about jamming.
North Korea aggressively jams foreign radio broadcasts by broadcasting noise on the same frequency so that it mixes with the foreign program and makes listening difficult.
However, it’s worth noting that the DPRK only possesses a finite number of transmitters capable of jamming, so more stations on the air mean a higher chance that any one station will get through. That still doesn’t guarantee a clean signal for the BBC.
- “South Korean regulations currently prevent foreign broadcasters from broadcasting FM or mediumwave radio from South Korea.”
South Korea, like Japan and China, are very strictly regulated media markets. To-date, it has proved impossible for any foreign or private broadcasters to construct transmitters in the country for the purpose of reaching the North Korean audience.
Current shortwave programming comes from a variety of locations, including the Mariana Islands and Uzbekistan.
The closest any broadcaster has come is BBG, which has managed to put some of its programs on mediumwave by leasing time on the powerful 1,118kHz transmitter of religious station Far East Broadcasting Co. (FEBC) in Seoul.
Open Radio for North Korea has also managed to broadcast from within South Korea by taking time on a local MBC affiliated station in Chuncheon, near the border. It broadcasts on 774kHz and 92.3 FM for an hour from 4am local time.
- It would be impossible to offer a TV service that would not be blocked by the government.
While the InterMedia report noted the viewing of foreign TV broadcasts inside the DPRK, this was reception of signals from domestic South Korean and Chinese stations that spilled over the border. Any targeting of North Korea with TV broadcasts would almost certainly result in jamming that would be much more effective than on shortwave.
Internet and Smartphones
- Mobile or Internet services would achieve very low or insignificant impact given access is strictly limited to political elites and both North Korea networks are effectively cut off from the rest of the world.
The BBC is right here. There’s no way to get content to North Korean smartphones or computer screens using the current networks. Any attempt, even by elites, to access BBC sites would almost certainly be detected.
Hague’s letter also noted that BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC that sells its programming overseas, is engaged with trying to get its programming aired on Korean Central Television. That would likely be non-factual content such as dramas, children’s TV shows and documentaries.
“In the long term, this is a good way to improve understanding about the outside world within such a closed society,” Hague concluded.
If you use an Apple iPhone or iPad, there’s a new app that lets you stay current with news from the Korean Central News Agency.
IJuche is the product of work by Peter Curtis, who says he became fascinated with the DPRK after reading Andrew Holloway’s “A Year in Pyongyang.”
“When I decided that I wanted to try my hand at iOS app development, I asked myself what sort of app I’d like to see on my iPhone and iPad that nobody else had written already,” he said.
And so came the idea to focus on North Korea.
“As your readers most likely know, official DPRK websites don’t tend to be terribly elegant or readable, and the problems are compounded on mobile devices. I could generally drag myself to the KCNA website once every few months when I thought about it for some reason, but never bothered to try keeping up with it,” said Curtis.
“With that in mind, I figured out what sort of iPhone/iPad app I could make that would be useful to me, and, ideally, a few other folks.”
The app queries the kcna.co.jp website daily and pulls in new headlines and articles and presents them in an easy-to-read interface. The Japanese site isn’t quite as fast in updating news as the kcna.kp site, which is based in Pyongyang, but the code behind the site is simpler and so easier to work with.
“In my own case, I simply love that I can be sitting in a bar, lying in bed, or what have you, and pull out my phone in a moment of boredom to see the latest announcements from North Korea. When KCNA is this much more accessible, it’s easier to follow ongoing narratives.”
iJuche can be found in the Apple App Store.
Here’s a couple of screenshots from the app.
First, the iPad app:
And the iPhone app: