By Diletta De Luca, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
February 22, 2022
Today, North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK) is the least Internet-friendly country in the world, where access to the World Wide Web is only permitted to a few authorized individuals. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un’s regime, as well as many other authoritarian governments, also recognize the potential to use digital tools and Internet technologies as new forms of social and political control. Considering these actions by authoritarian regimes, digital rights—the right to access, use, create, and publish digital sources and open Internet technologies—should be recognized as human rights that must be respected and protected.
Digital Tools & Authoritarian Regimes
With the diffusion of information, knowledge, and social mobilization through the Internet, political scientists once anticipated a worldwide wave of democratization. Increased access to online tools was initially considered as the missing but necessary catalyst for democratization. However, there are now contrasting opinions regarding the influence of digitalization under authoritarian regimes. “Cyber-optimists” regard digitalization as an opportunity for citizens to gather information that challenges state propaganda, in turn fostering anti-regime sentiment and mobilization by facilitating collective action. In other words, even if authoritarian regimes impose strict control over the Internet, citizens are still able to access various information online that undermines authoritarian rule in the long term. Conversely, “cyber-pessimists” hold that repressive regimes are able to weaken anti-regime sentiment through sophisticated control over the Internet. They believe that authoritarian powers have shifted their control strategy in recent decades from suppressing communication flows and engaging in censorship to strengthening surveillance mechanisms. Many of today’s authoritarian powers have acquired new capabilities to control and repress individuals both inside and outside their borders by suppressing alternative voices while strengthening their political control.
Digitalization Developments in North Korea
In North Korea, high-level elites have relatively free access to the Internet since members of the regime’s leadership tailor their political decision-making based on foreign trends and events. Furthermore, digitalization-related developments, such as increasing cybersecurity measures and surveillance tools, are gradually unfolding in the country. A recent United Nations report highlights how North Korea is also launching cyberattacks and stealing money in the form of cryptocurrency to fund the government’s missile and nuclear programs. Nevertheless, most of the population can only access a government-controlled intranet. Furthermore, all media content and broadcasts within the country are controlled by the Korean Workers’ Party, the founding and sole ruling party in the DPRK. All external telecommunications signals, including Wi-Fi, are banned within the country, and government officials constantly monitor citizens’ emails and telephone communications. Central to North Korea’s Internet strategy is the severe punishments faced by citizens if found to be in possession of unauthorized online materials and information. However, despite these punishments, studies and reports suggest the presence of a considerable black market from which foreign movies, cell phones, and radios that can connect to the outside world are sold. Such materials present the population with alternatives to the regime’s propaganda. Based on the opinions of cyber-optimist scholars, such exposure could in turn lead to collective action, motivating citizens to call for more freedom and openness in the country. The detachment and separation of the country from the outside world and high risks of punishment for accessing outside information, however, make a large-scale wave of social change unlikely in the short term.
Implications for Human Rights in North Korea
In limiting the ability to access, use, create, and publish digital and open media, the North Korean government curtails the human rights of its citizens. Ever since access to the Internet and communication technologies became an essential part of modern society, digital rights have been recognized as an extension of human rights, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also applies to the online digital world. Closely linked to digital rights are, in fact, the right to privacy and the freedom of expression, which are both almost entirely disregarded in North Korea. For this reason, advocacy groups and international organizations should advocate to ensure full respect for these human rights in North Korea in their traditional and online forms, as digital access could be the missing step to a significant opening up of North Korea.
Diletta De Luca is a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, pursuing a Master of Science in International Relations. She focuses on authoritarian practices and gender inequality.
 People for Successful COrean REunification (PSCORE), “Digital Life & Digital Rights,” 2021. http://pscore.org/life-north-korea/digital-life-digital-rights/.
 Eric Talmadge, “North Korea's digital divide: Online elites, isolated masses,” Chicago Tribune, November 17, 2017. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/blue-sky/ct-north-korea-digital-divide-20171111-story.html.
 Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright, "Digital repression in autocracies," Varieties of Democracy Institute Users Working Paper, no. 27 (2020). https://www.v-dem.net/media/publications/digital-repression17mar.pdf.
 Seva Gunitsky, “Corrupting the cyber-commons: Social media as a tool of autocratic stability,” Perspectives on Politics 13, no. 1 (2015): 42–54.
 Ibid.; Kris Ruijgrok, Internet Use and Protest in Malaysia and Other Authoritarian Regimes: Challenging Information Scarcity (Cham: Springer Nature, 2021).
 Kris Ruijgrok, “Illusion of control: how internet use generates anti-regime sentiment in authoritarian regimes,” Contemporary Politics 27, no. 3 (2020): 247–70.
 Gunitsky, “Corrupting the cyber-commons.”
 Marcus Michaelsen, “Exit and voice in a digital age: Iran’s exiled activists and the authoritarian state,” Globalizations 15, no. 2 (2018): 248–64.
 Talmadge, “North Korea's digital divide.”
 Edith L. Lederer, “UN expert: North Korea stealing millions in cyber attacks,” AP News, February 7, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/technology-business-global-trade-united-nations-north-korea-25b1c7199519b31fe592dace54e119d9.
 Martyn Williams, Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019). https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Williams_Digital_Trenches_Web_FINAL.pdf.
 Johannes Gerschewski and Alexander Dukalskis, “How the Internet Can Reinforce Authoritarian Regimes: The Case of North Korea,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 19, no. 1 (Fall 2018): 12–19.
 Martha Kuhnhenn, Micky Lee, and Weiqi Zhang, “Media Liberalization: Control and Consumption of Foreign Media in North Korea, China, and East Germany,” International Journal of Communication 14 (2020): 1421–37.
 PSCORE, “Digital Life & Digital Rights.”
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.