North Korea nurtures IT to push economic growth

It’s 3.30 p.m. and 15-year-old Chung Ryong Hyok would rather be programming his computer than playing in the sunshine outside. Like millions of kids around the world, Chung is fascinated by his computer and is busy improving his skills, but he is not just any kid and this is not just any after-school center. This is the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Chung is one of his country’s brightest hopes for building an IT industry.

“I enjoy using the computer,” he said. “I’ve been using if for one and a half years and I like programming, especially in Visual Basic and Visual C++.”

Alongside Chung, 25 other children are studying computer programming, each sitting in front of a modern desktop computer running either Windows 98, 2000 or XP operating systems. The picture is similar in another 19 classrooms at the center, which provides after-school programming lessons to 600 students six days a week, said teacher Ryang Hye Gyong.

“When I am older, I want to be a computer operating system engineer,” said Chung. His ambition, like those of many North Koreans, meshes perfectly with the plans of Kim Jong Il, the country’s head of state and a man known to all as the “Dear Leader”.

Kim, who is keenly interested in technology and has visited personal computer and semiconductor factories on recent foreign trips, declared his wish to build a domestic IT industry just over a year ago during the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is the nearest thing the country has to a parliament. It was followed in May by the country’s first IT summit, at which leading IT experts discussed how to catch up with world standards in the shortest possible time, according to an official report.

To kick-start development, Kim has been donating personal computers and equipment to places like the Schoolchildren’s Palace and higher seats of learning, such as Kim Il Sung University and the Pyongyang Programming Center. A small red label stuck to each monitor reminds students of the gift from the Dear Leader.

While children like Chung represent a future generation of programmers, work is already under way at universities and a handful of computer centers on the first building blocks of an IT industry, and the top item on the agenda is the development of a domestic operating system based on Linux. At present, the vast majority of computers in North Korea are based on English-language versions of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system and the country is eager to break this reliance on U.S. technology.

Alongside the OS development, several pieces of software have also been produced and the country has already scored one notable international success. A version of Baduk, a type of Korean chess, developed by Pyongyang’s Chosun Computer Center is on sale in South Korea through a venture with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and is regarded by many players south of the border as one of the best software versions available.

But now North Korea is actively looking to score partnerships and deals with foreign companies. The first international exhibition of North Korean software has just finished in Beijing, China, and drew around 2,500 people, according to one of the organizers, and a second IT fair, this time in Pyongyang, is planned for the end of June.

At the Beijing fair, companies demonstrated a variety of products, including instructional CD-ROMs that teach basic typing and Korean cooking skills, three-dimensional design software, an optical character recognition program, a PC-based fax application, noise cancelling software and an image processing application which offers digital watermarking and data hiding functions.

The country is also getting into the hardware business. In late 2000 or early 2001 the first PC manufacturing plant began operations. It is producing Pentium 3 and Celeron-class computers, according to official news reports, and analysts believe the capacity to be around 30,000 units per year.

While the IT work is still in its early stages, the country is proud of the advances that have been made and recently made them one of a number of achievements celebrated at Arirang, a grand mass games event involving 100,000 athletes and performers taking place in Pyongyang. On a recent evening in the May Day Stadium, thousands of performers held aloft flash cards that covered an entire wall of the stadium with a picture of personal computers while thousands of others danced flawlessly in step below to the cheers of crowds.

Away from the universities, schoolchildren’s centers and workplaces that have PCs, citizens of Pyongyang are getting their first chance to use computers.

At the Grand People’s Study House, which sits in Kim Il Sung Square in the center of the city, the library catalog is available for browsing through a collection of 40 aging Compaq computers sitting near the main entrance of the building, and study classes are also offered in basic computer skills.

The library also offers a selection of English-language books on computer skills and “Word Perfect 6.0 for DOS,” “Linking LANs,” “Using Microsoft Works” and “Basic Fortran” were among those on display. All the books were donated via the Asia Society.

It is also here that many people get their first taste of the Web. It is not the Internet but the Study House’s home page on Kwangmyong, a nationwide intranet the government has established that links major universities, ministries and similar establishments. Through this network, limited e-mail is available to some users, although the network is not believed to be interconnected to the Internet and normal library visitors do not get e-mail access.

There are no plans to connect the Study House to the Internet, according to staff member Kim Sung Gi. “The readers have never requested that because we have enough books so they are satisfied,” he said. “I have never seen the Internet because I am satisfied with all of the books in my Study House.”

Few people in the country have access to the Internet but someone that does is Kim Jong Il.

At the end of a series of meetings with then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in October 2000, he famously asked for her e-mail address and more recently told visiting South Korean presidential envoy Lim Dong Won that he enjoys visiting the home page of the Blue House, the official residence of South Korea’s president, and that of the Unification Ministry, according to an interview with Lim in a Japanese newspaper.

Despite this rush into the IT age, owning a computer remains a dream for many. With housing supplied by the state, and owning a car out of the reach of all but the most senior government and party officials, a computer ranks as one the most expensive purchases ever likely to be made, according to one Pyongyang resident interviewed by IDG News Service.

Because of the difficulty in traveling to surrounding towns and villages, the situation outside of Pyongyang is difficult to gauge. However, aid officials say the situation is worse than in the capital, with electricity not available in many areas.

Still, the country is keen to do business with foreign companies and has scheduled an IT forum in Pyongyang for late June. Because of U.S. government regulations, U.S. companies cannot do business with North Korea. However, the country is hoping to strike deals with high-tech companies elsewhere in the world.