Posts tagged Korea Computer Center
Kwangmyong, North Korea’s online information service, has been upgraded.
The network serves scientific and technological information and has been expanded with a new search function that includes a translation function, according to a recent article on Naenara, the website of Pyongyang’s Korea Computer Center.
When he wasn’t taking stunning panorama photographs around Pyongyang, Singapore-based photographer Aram Pan had time to visit this year’s Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair (평양봄철국제상품전람회).
The fair was twice as big this year as it had been in 2013 according to state media, and it’s easy to see why when you watch a 3-minute video shot by Pan.
The place is bustling with people browsing and buying all manner of products.
As Pan notes in the opening of the video, all transactions that take place at the event are settled in Chinese Yuan, Euros or U.S. Dollars. In fact, a booth worker can be seen handling U.S. currency in one scene in the video. This isn’t perhaps surprising when many retailers and products have come from overseas.
Poor Microsoft. It seems North Korea doesn’t like the traditional Windows-look anymore.
The latest version of the country’s home-grown operating system, Red Star Linux, has been restyled and ships with a desktop that closely resembles Apple’s Mac OSX. The previous version was based on the popular KDE desktop that mimicked that of Windows 7.
Red Star Linux was developed by the Korea Computer Center (KCC), a major center of software programming in Pyongyang, and is based on Linux, the open-source operating system originally developed by Linus Torvalds.
Open-source software is offered to the world under a license that allows anyone to adapt and modify the program and that’s what North Korea began doing around ten years ago. Its base appears to have been Red Hat Linux, a popular version of Linux that’s offered by a company based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Red Star first became widely available outside of North Korea around 2010 when a Russian student who was studying at Kim Il Sung University posted it on the Internet.
This is what version 2.0 looked like:
One of the surprises in North Korea’s recently-launched Samjiyon (삼지연) tablet was the inclusion of Angry Birds, the globally-popular game that involves shooting animated birds to destroy structures and animated pigs.
In July, when I was reviewing the Samjiyon, I contacted game-maker Rovio to ask about its inclusion in the device. Despite several attempts to get comment, the company never replied.
Last week, The Washington Post managed to have a bit more luck.
A spokesman for the developer said via e-mail: “Angry Birds Rio has not been localized into Korean, and Rovio Entertainment has no affiliation with the version of the game being shown on the Samjiyon tablet.” — Washington Post, November 6, 2013.
So, it seems that the version on the Samjiyon, which is in Korean, is an unofficial version of the game.
If so, it was likely reprogrammed by the Korea Computer Center, the Pyongyang-based computer software development center and the organization that produces the Samjiyon.
The tablet is largely a software effort. The hardware comes from vendors in China and the Korea Computer Center localizes the Android operating system and develops local applications.
The Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair is scheduled to run until Thursday and has attracted companies from Germany, Russia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, Italy, China, Cuba, Turkey and Taiwan, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
In previous years, the fair has been the launching point for new tablet computers. Nothing was mentioned about new computers in Monday’s local press coverage, although Monday’s main evening news bulletin on Korea Central Television (below) did show again the Samjiyon tablet computer
The fair provides a platform for companies doing business with the DPRK to promote good relations by appearing at the event.
Based on the TV images and photos carried by KCNA, here’s a partial list of some of the companies in attendance:
- BYD (Chinese auto and electrical maker)
- Pyongyang Trading Corp.
- European Business Association (Pyongyang)
- Korea Japanese Friendship Medical Co.
- Korea Jangsu Trading Co.
- Korea Computer Center
- Myohyang Chonho JV Co.
- Ratimir Co. Ltd. (Russian meats company)
- Labiofam Enterprise Group (Cuba)
- Hongkong Hingheng Development
- Kntting Trading Corp.
- Joyang Textile JV
One of the most interesting questions surrounding North Korea’s Samjiyon tablet is its source. State media reports not withstanding, the tablet is almost certainly not made in North Korea — the country just doesn’t have the electronics manufacturing capability to design products like tablet computers from the components up.
And anyway, why bother? Companies in Taiwan and China offer many finished tablet designs that are widely used, even by well-known western brand names, so why go through the work and expense of designing something from scratch?
North Korea’s IT expertise is in software and that’s where the Samjiyon is very North Korean. There are several domestically-developed software apps and packages, education materials for local kids and other enhancements.
The hardware however isn’t different at all from Android tablets on sale in other countries, with the sole exception of a analog TV tuner for local broadcasts.
So, where does it come from?
A little detective work, digging through configuration files buried within the Samjiyon and some Internet sleuthing has revealed the likely source.
In the Samjiyon’s Android system files is the first clue:
This identifies the tablet as a Yecon 75 and the manufacturer as Alps. Yecon is a Hong Kong based manufacturer of motherboards for tablet computers.
Established in 2003, Shenzhen Yecon Industry Co., Ltd. specializes in tablet PC, GPS equipments, communication devices and other intelligent electronics products. The strategic target for Yecon is to create greatest value for business partners and build Yecon to become a powerful and influential brand and front-runner in domestic intelligent electronics market. After undaunted efforts for more than eight years, Yecon boasts and grows continuously in company scale, sales performance, management ability and comprehensive strengthen as well. — Yecon company website
Alps — not to be confused with the Japanese electronics component maker — appears to be a tablet maker. I’ve found a few references to Alps MID (mobile Internet device) tablets that look similar to the Samjiyon, but nothing perfectly aligns yet.
Yecon’s website shows images for several tablet circuit boards, which are premade for packaging with a screen and other components. One in particular stands out, the MG705.
Take a look at the photo below. The right hand side of the board, as seen in this photo, would be the top of the tablet. There’s a couple of SIM card slots and a memory card slot. Along the lower side of the board, which would be the right hand side in the tablet, are more connectors, including an HDMI connector in the center.
Now take a look at the inside of the Samjiyon (click image for larger version).
Looking closer will reveal the two boards are almost identical. There are a few minor differences, and that’s probably because they are slightly different versions of the same design. You’ll also notice some of the capabilities of the board, such as the dual SIM card slots shown as feature 4, are not present on the Samjiyon board. The HDMI video socket, between features 1 and 2 on the Yecon board has also not been installed on the Samjiyon.
The Yecon board isn’t exclusive to the Samjiyon and so it’s possible to see very similar tablets on sale from other companies.
For example, at this year’s Computex IT show in Taipei local tablet maker Clevo was demonstrating a 7-inch Android tablet with built-in digital TV reception that looks very similar to the Samjiyon. A give away is the position of the switches, slots and sockets on the case. Clevo didn’t reply to several requests for details on the tablet, so I haven’t been able to confirm it’s based on the Yecon board, but it looks very similar.
North Korea, like the rest of the world, is getting hooked on tablet computers. In the last year, state media has highlighted three different tablet computers that are now, according to the reports, available in the country.
The latest of these, the Samjiyon (삼지연), is also on sale to foreigners and one of the tablets was recently purchased by a tech-savvy tourist. The tourist, Michael, doesn’t want to use his surname, but I’ve spoken extensively with him via e-mail, phone and Skype video chat about the tablet and how it performs.
The Samjiyon first appeared to the world at the 8th Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair in September 2012. Supposedly developed by the Korea Computer Center (조선콤퓨터쎈터), the tablet is the first from the country to support reception of TV broadcasts.
“The tablet was just sitting there”
“We had just finished lunch at a hotpot restaurant in Pyongyang and had time to kill while some of us smoked, etc,” said Michael. “The restaurant has a gift shop on the ground floor which mostly sold cheap manufactured stuff that wasn’t overtly for tourists but was likely sold almost exclusively to them.”
“The tablet was just sitting there next to some trinkets inside of the glass case in front at the register. At first, I just asked to take a couple of photos of the box, excited to be able to add just a bit more info to the small amount out there in the world. I asked if it was for sale as more of a joke than anything and I was surprised to have the woman behind the counter tell me it was for sale for just US$200. That simple.”
With that, it was purchased. Taking it out of the country proved no problem, he said.
“When I filled out my customs form at the Pyongyang airport, I even declared that I had an electronic device with me that I didn’t have when I arrived but no attention was paid whatsoever.”
“The Samjiyon is surprisingly impressive”
So, how does the tablet stack up against the many Android tablets available in developed markets like the U.S.? Our tech-savvy tourist was well placed to make that distinction because of a job that affords regular access to many high-end Android tablets, like the Galaxy Tab, Galaxy Nexus tabs and Amazon Kindle.
“I can honestly say that the Samjiyon is surprisingly impressive. In terms of responsiveness and speed, it can almost compete against the leading tablets out there. Tapping and launching apps feels fairly fluid, instantiating the camera is as fast as the world’s leading tablets, and there is no noticeable lag when playing games I’m familiar with, like Angry Birds.”
If you believe the specs on the Samjiyon’s box, it’s got an 1.2GHz processor (which is more than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7″‘s 1.0GHz processor) and 1GB of RAM (the same as the Samsung).
All of the typical Android apps are present on the tablet, but don’t look for any Google software. That’s because the basic version of Android, which is available at no cost to any company that wants to use it, doesn’t include Google apps like Gmail, YouTube and Navigation. To get the Google apps, hardware developers need to sign an agreement with Google. That wasn’t done for the Samjiyon and for good reason: with no Internet access, the Google apps are pretty much useless anyway.
North Koreans might not have Internet access, but they do have the ability to connect to a nationwide internal intranet. A web browser in the Samjiyon comes equipped for the task. It’s programmed to default to a home page at a numeric IP address, 10.76.1.11. The address sits within a private address block, specifically designed for use on internal networks and not globally.
There are several pre-programmed bookmarks.
- Rodong Sinmun (www.rodong.ref.kp)
- Korean Central News Agency (www.kcn.inf.kp)
- Korean Central Television (www.krt.rep.kp)
- Grand People’s Study House (www.gpsh.edu.kp)
These are linking to sites on the domestic intranet. In the case of the Rodong and KCNA sites, which also have sites on the global Internet, the URLs are different.
However, despite the Web browser, Michael says there doesn’t appear to be any way to connect the WiFi. Some of the settings in the tablet’s configuration files refer to a hardware WiFi adapter, so it appears to have the ability to connect built inside it.
It’s possible the configuration entries are erroneous, that WiFi exists in hardware but has been disabled in software, or that it’s hard-coded to work on a certain network and cannot be changed like conventional tablets.
North Korean Apps
Several of the apps on the Samjiyon appear to be domestically made. Perhaps the most interesting of these is a version of Adobe’s PDF reader that’s been repackaged by the Korea Computer Center. It’s not immediately clear what changes if any were made, but the name of the PDF reader software package contains a clear reference to the Korea Computer Center. The names of other foreign-souced software packages haven’t been changed, so it apparently signifies some level of repackaging or modification.
There’s a number of games on the Samjiyon, and some are from international developers.
Among them, a Korean-language version of Angry Birds Rio. It’s interesting to think that this most addictive of Android games have reached as far as Pyongyang. How it got there is a mystery. Rovio, the Finnish maker of the game, hasn’t responded to several requests for comment.
And, if you hadn’t figured it out from Dennis Rodman’s January trip to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un is a big basketball fan. So it’s interesting to see the Basketball Shot game as one of the apps on the Samjiyon.
Here’s the games found on the tablet:
- Angry Birds Rio (Rovio, Finland)
- Basketball Shot (Droidhen Games)
- Field Runners (Subatomic, U.S.)
- Fishing Joy (Punch Box, China)
- Tank Recon 3D (Lone Dwarf Games)
- Air Control (Four Pixels Games)
- Racing Moto (Droidhen Games)
A promotional video for the Samjiyon highlights its usefulness as a tool for students. That’s underlined by the inclusion of several educational and reference software apps.
On the left side of the top shelf are elementary school books: music, computers, mathematics and Kim Il Sung’s childhood. On the right side are middle school books covering language and the arts. The bottom shelf has more middle school books on the left concerning English, biology and chemistry. The right side has reference books.
The main specifications of the tablet are listed on the box:
- 1.2GHz CPU
- 1GB DDR3 memory
- 8GB or 16GB internal storage
- 7-inch screen with 1,024 by 768 pixel resolution
- 2 megapixel camera
- 187 by 124 by 10 millimeters
- 250 grams
Once switched on, the settings screen gives away a little more detail:
- Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
- Kernel 3.0.13
- Baseband A70MTK_D1_default_V1.0.0
- Build number 20130311.154649
The build number is the date and time when the system software image loaded on the tablet was finalized: March 11, 2013 at 3:46pm.
The localization settings are set to Pyongyang and North Korea:
“The device’s form factor leaves some things to be desired, as the power and volume buttons protrude with some rough edges and trying to open the SD card slot is a bit awkward. Perhaps the biggest misstep in the hardware is the TV antenna and the way that one’s fingernails play a critical role in being able to extract it. Reminds me of pulling a stylus out of a Palm Pilot but even more frustrating,” said Michael.
“The speaker is nice and loud and clear although the headphones jack has some serious issues, requiring quite a bit of jiggling to get both channels coming in without interruption. The screen is also bright but only when viewed straight on. Otherwise, it’s fairly dim. That said, 1024 by 768 pixel resolution is on par with Samsung’s best 7-inch tablet and the iPad Mini.”
“The tablet is running Android 4.0.4 and aside from no obvious way to enable WiFi (although investigation suggests that it supports it), the tablet really would stack up against 80 percent of the tablets sold in the U.S.”
The tablet comes with a built-in analog TV tuner. North Korea uses the European PAL color system and the Russian channel system.
Hitting the TV button on the display starts the TV function and allows the user to choose between four preset channels: VHF channels 5 and 12 and UHF channels 25 and 31.
According to a list of North Korea’s TV transmitters in the most recent edition of the World Radio TV Handbook, channel 5 is used by Mansudae TV in Pyongyang and channel 12 by Korea Central Television.
The same book says Pyongyang’s other TV station, Ryongnamsan TV (former Korea Educational TV), uses channel 9 and lists no UHF channels at all for any North Korean TV outlet. Given the difficulty in getting accurate information from North Korea, it could be that the list is based on old information or incorrect. It could also be the case that UHF broadcasting is now in use in Pyongyang.
Manual tuning isn’t possible. This is inline with North Korea’s policy of fixed tuners on radios and TVs so people cannot listen to foreign broadcasts, but also means the TV function is of little use outside of Pyongyang because KCTV uses other channels in different parts of the country. Perhaps that’s no so much of a problem given the $200 price tag and the lower incomes in the provinces.
North Korea’s main evening news featured a minute-long report on the tablet computers on Thursday night.
The report, which focused on the Samjiyon tablet, interviewed a man identified as the chief engineer of the tablet from the Multimedia Technology Research Institute of the Korea Computer Center.
The tablet first made an appearance in September at the Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair, and the television news report revealed that the tablet can receive television broadcasts.
There were several shots of the tablet showing images from Korea Central Television.
The report appeared to show several different computers, including a laptop with a detachable screen that could be used as a tablet.
As reported back in September, the computers are likely built in China, bought by North Korea and the software is localized.
Here’s video of the report and, below it, some screengrabs.