North Korea Opens up Internet for National Anniversary

North Korea appears to have made its first full connection to the Internet. The connection, planning for which has been going on for at least nine months, came as the reclusive country prepares to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea with a massive celebration and military parade.

A Web site for the country's official news agency was the first to appear from among a group of 1,024 Internet addresses that had been reserved for North Korea but never used. The Korea Central News Agency's new Web site is different from one operated by a group in Tokyo and carries news and photos a day ahead of the Japanese site.

Other North Korea-linked Web sites and a recently launched Twitter feed operate from locations outside the country or via direct connections to China's national Internet.

The site appeared as Pyongyang welcomed foreign journalists to the city to observe Sunday's parade. A press room for the journalists was set up at the Koryo Hotel and reporters were given full access to the Internet. Typically visitors to Pyongyang are only able to make telephone calls or send e-mails through designated computers.

"The North Korean IT guys at the press room really know their stuff. We're logged on," wrote Melissa Chan, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, in a Twitter message.

She later appeared live on the channel via a Skype link.

"We have access to Facebook, Twitter and here I am able to Skype with you," she said.

The access is extraordinary for a country that keeps such tight control on how its citizens communicate.

While Internet access is believed to be available to small group of elite members of the ruling party, the rest of the country is not permitted access to outside sources of news.

Radios are pre-tuned to state broadcasts, magazines and newspapers from other countries are banned and the only Web access available is to a nationwide intranet that doesn't link to sites outside of the country. As PCs are unusual at home, most access is via terminals in libraries.

The first signs of a greater interest in the Internet came late last year when a batch of Internet addresses, long reserved for North Korea, were assigned to a North Korean-Thai joint venture.

The numeric IP addresses lie at the heart of communication on the Internet. Every computer connected to the network needs its own address so that data can be sent and received by the correct servers and computers. Without them, communication would be impossible.

Frequent monitoring of the addresses by IDG News Service repeatedly failed to turn up any use of them until now.

An analysis of the connection to the news agency Web site shows it is connected to the wider Internet via China Netcom.

It's impossible to tell if the access given to journalists in Pyongyang marks a turning point in the way the country regulates access to communications, or if it's simply a courtesy made available to create a good impression among journalists.

The founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea is a big deal for the country every year, but this year is especially important. Kim Jong Eun, son of leader Kim Jong Il, has just taken his first position within the party, which rules North Korea. His appointment to the party's Central Committee and the Central Military Commission are first steps towards a likely future position as leader of the country.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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