North Korea and the Web

North Korea (“NK”), or DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is seen as a dictatorship, and a very isolated country, for some good reasons. On one hand, they have almost totally isolated their country from the Internet. On the other hand, we know that NK hackers are very active. This contradiction made me think that it would be interesting to dig in, and write an article about North Korea and the Web…so let’s go !

As an introduction, I would like to start providing a few hints about the physical isolation of NK. In fact, there is an extreme correlation between the physical isolation of NK and it’s degree of isolation on the web…bridging the two is helpfull to understand the overall situation


Isolation of North Korea

NK is a relatively small country of about 25 Million people, located in sandwich between China and South Korea. It has a small border also with Russia in the North East (near the city of Vladivostok)

NK is a stalinist – communist driven country. Here is a short reminder of it’s recent history :

In 1910, Korea – at that time, a unified territory – was annexed by the Japanese Empire. At the end of the second world war, in 1945, Japan capitulated and the Korean peninsula was separated in two parts, following the offensive of two superpowers, Soviet Union in the north and USA in the South. Negociations for a reunification being stalled between Soviet Union and USA, distinct governments are formed in the north and in the south. In 1948, the north intends to attack the south, leading to the Korean war between 1950 and 1953. The armistice between the two opponents will be a cease fire, but no peace treaty will ever be signed.

After the dislocation of the Soviet Union, NK will face a catastrophic famine. The Kim dinasty, at the head of the country, will lead a policy of “military first”, to strengthen the country and it’s government. At the same time, NK will take an ever increasing path towards a dictatorship, building concentration camps, deporting people, killing thousands of political opponents. As a “rogue nation”, more and more isolated, constrained by embargoes, NK will grow an illicit trade with some complicit countries. In this respect, because of the former Sino-Soviet relationships, and also some common business interests, NK will have specific ties with China and Russia, in many areas

Having said that, let’s have a deeper look at NK physical flows with its neighbors

Closed borders

In the South, since the cease fire with SK, it has a so called DMZ – demilitarized zone – border with SK. This border is a very strong barrier as can be seen below. There is a single point of entry called the Joint Security Area

In the North East, it has a natural border with Russia, in a quite desertic and isolated area, with the Tumen River. There is only one bridge linking the two countries, the so called Friendship bridge. The overall area is poor and rather hostile

In the North, it has a natural border with mainland China, with the very long Yalu River. There are a few bridges across the river, the main one being the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, located in the Chinese city of Dandong (top left corner of the below photo). There’s a good article here if you want to know more about Dandong : https://bit.ly/3npFqZC

The sea traffic is very low as per global live traffic maps (in addition to the embargo, at the time of writing this article, NK had taken measures to limit sea traffic because of the COVID pandemic)

The air traffic is almost null, see below the captures of the today’s live traffic, and also the scheduled flights in the next 7 days…just one flight to Beijing in China !

For a much detailed navigator of NK topography, go to the excellent 38North web site : http://38northdigitalatlas.org/

Enough with geography data…I think you got it ! It sets the tone for what will see next

Internet cable routes

First of all, we can have a look at the submarine internet cables in the area of North Korea : https://www.submarinecablemap.com/

There are no submarine cables going to NK. Not surprising !

China Unicom has a notorious terrestrial cable going to NK, through Dandong

This cable goes along the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, seen above

There is also a cable running from Russia into North Korea, through the Tumen River Friendship bridge (again, seen above). It is operated by the Russian TTK – TransTeleCom

Before the opening of this second cable, NK was only relying on one cable, the Chinese cable. Therefore NK was not quite secure from an Internet access point of view. This cable was a “single point of failure”

The USA triggered a reaction from NK, when they decided to DDoS their internet line, following a spate of hacks from NK : https://www.38north.org/2017/10/mwilliams100117/

The Russian cable was put in service shortly after !


TLD – Top Level Domain of North Korea

I will start by providing an interesting number…how many internet users in North Korea ?

To answer this question, let’s go here : https://resources.potaroo.net/iso3166/v4cc.html

This link provides a full updated table of internet usage per country in the world : number of IP adresses, number of internet users,…

North Korea lies in the 240th position…with a number of internet users as low as 51 557 users. That means an internet access as low as Eritrea, but this African country only has 3.5 million people, while North Korea has about 25.7 million people…

Who are these users ? This article, based upon good data, explains that the Elite has access to the global Internet : https://www.recordedfuture.com/north-korea-internet-activity/

Let’s continue and have a look at the top level domain information from NK. For this, let’s go to the IANA website : https://www.iana.org/about

IANA mission statement

Let’s search into the Root Zone Database : https://www.iana.org/domains/root/db