China is key to North Korean Internet, but maybe not hackers

Policing the country's Internet link wouldn't necessarily stop the actions of hackers

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China has a well-developed Internet, and China Unicom provides Internet access to North Korea.

Credit: Nicholas Poon [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

A request to the Chinese government by U.S. diplomats to help crack down on North Korean hacking underlines the important role that China plays in keeping the dictatorship online.

North Korea relies on China for Internet connectivity, partially due to longstanding ties between the two nations and partly because it has few options. North Korea borders just three countries: South Korea, with which it is still technically at war, Russia and China. The Chinese Internet is well developed and the Russian border is far from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, making China a good choice.

A connection from China Unicom into the country first appeared in late 2010. Until then, North Korea had no full-time connection to the Internet -- just an email service that relayed messages every hour or so.

The country was brought online by Star, a joint venture between the Korea Posts and Telecommunications Co. and Thailand's Loxley Pacific. It provides connectivity to a handful of websites in Pyongyang and those lucky enough to be permitted Internet access: foreigners in the country, senior students at elite universities, scientists and a handful of others. Usage is understood to be closely monitored.

And that's it. There are no other known Internet connections.

A second connection was previously available via Intelsat, an international satellite operator, but it appears to be out of use at present.

So it's tempting to think that with tighter control of that connection to China, a lot of malicious activity could be stopped. However, it's unclear whether that link was used at all in cyberattacks that are blamed on North Korea.

The country operates a number of software programming ventures in other countries and is suspected of basing cyberattackers overseas too. The Chinese city of Shenyang, close to the border with North Korea, is thought to be home to one such office and that would have a domestic Chinese Internet connection. Hackers are accused of routing traffic through servers in other countries, further complicating the task.

Asked on Monday about the reports of a U.S request to China for help, a State Department spokeswoman confirmed that the U.S. has asked for China's assistance, but didn't offer additional details.

"I would say on this or other issues, we have affirmed that malicious cyberactivity like this attack can pose a risk to international peace and security, so we'll keep having the conversation with them," the spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said at a briefing.

Away from the Internet, North Korea's other telecom links are just as meagre.

The country doesn't permit its citizens to make or receive international telephone calls. Calls to businesses in Pyongyang are typically routed through an operator, who must connect callers to the parties they are trying to reach. Direct dialling is almost impossible.

Much of North Korea's telephone capacity is believed to travel via China or via satellite.

The Pyongyang Earth Station opened in 1985 with a connection to Intersputnik, a satellite operator that connected mainly Soviet-bloc nations. In 1991, North Korea joined Intelsat and began using a satellite link to connect to countries like Japan, which in the past had been served by a shortwave radio telephony link.

It's 32-meter dish can easily be seen in satellite pictures of the site and is believed to still be in use today.

The country's state-run TV channel, Korean Central Television, is also broadcast from the country to viewers in Asia via a Thai-owned satellite.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley 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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