First Look

Here's what North Korea's websites look like – all 28 of them

Researchers have speculated that North Korea's internet is limited in scope, but until a US-based engineer was granted accidental access, no one knew quite how elementary the nation's online presence was.

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at parade participants at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, in May.
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Thanks to a fluke in North Korea’s internet security system, the world now knows exactly how many websites are registered in the country's strictly controlled, highly secretive web system. 

The answer? Not very many.

On Tuesday, an American engineer at Uber, Matthew Bryant, sent an automated request to North Korea’s Domain Name System, asking for access to all of the nation’s internet domains – he'd previously set up a script to keep watch for a chance to do so. Typically, the server rejects such frequent and automated inquiries, but due to what was likely an error, the server granted Mr. Bryant access to everything ending in ".kp," as TechCrunch reports.

The request uncovered all 28 of North Korea’s state-run and moderated websites that can be viewed outside its borders, which Mr. Bryant then posted to GitHub.

Unsurprisingly, most are dedicated to news about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, but some boast information about the country’s arts and culture.

“We didn’t think there was much in the way of internet resources in North Korea, and according to these leaked zone files, we were right,” Doug Madory, a researcher at Dyn, a company that monitors worldwide internet use and access, told Motherboard.

Researchers say they already knew about most of the sites unveiled by the leak but didn’t have concrete proof of their existence until Tuesday. Inside North Korea's borders, people approved to use the web have access to the secretive "Intranet," called "Bright," which is believed to give access to up to 5,500 sites from around the world – still a diminutive offering when considering there are around 1 billion websites worldwide

On North Korea's own 28 sites, users can find information on travel and flight booking, cooking, culture, news, a university, spirituality, and art and film. Additionally, there’s a social networking site titled “Friend,” which some international users suggested could be a basic Facebook replica. 

While all of the sites are slow to load and elementary in design, the news sites sparked particular interest. Rarely updated and lacking in original content not produced by the government, they are primarily a tool used to reflect the “Supreme Leader’s Activities.”

"These websites are really there to push North Korea's voice on the global stage, as if it's a normal member of the international community," Martyn Williams, the operator of the website North Korea Tech, based in San Francisco, told the BBC. "We never know if any of it's true as there's no way to verify it independently.”

The leak raises questions around the country’s rudimentary system and the ease with which outsiders can gain access. In 2014, hackers shuttered the nation’s internet for nearly 10 hours, proving that having only a small number of computers connected to the network made it an easy target.

“It’s actually pretty easy,” Jose Nazario, chief scientist at Invincea Inc., a security software company in Fairfax, Va., told Bloomberg at the time of the cyberattack. “There are only a handful of hosts. It’s relatively easy to attack just those hosts or the pipes that are present there. There’s not that much bandwidth there. It’s very, very accessible to anyone who wanted to attack them.”

The unsophisticated nature of the sites tells something else about the nation’s online presence: It’s not out to emulate or compete with service in other countries.

"They don't try to ape Western media," Mr. Williams told the BBC. "When you go on the website its obvious its news from North Korea. It's not dressed up to look like a slick international media outlet."

 
 
 

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