Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Will IT Help To Democratize North Korea

This article from Aisa Times reveals that "a mini-IT revolution is taking place in North Korea."

The Korea Computer Center is the main agency which commands North Korea's IT strategy. It was set up in 1990 by Kim Jong-il, and is considered the center of North Korea's IT revolution now. More surprising is this: in October 2004, South Korea's Defense Ministry discovered that the North had trained more than 500 computer hackers capable of launching cyber-warfare against its enemies. The Defese Ministry also reports, "North Korea's intelligence-warfare capability is estimated to have reached the level of advanced countries," and the military hackers had been put through a five-year university course training them to penetrate the computer systems of South Korea, the United States and Japan.

Most of the IT users are government agencies, research institutes, educational organizations. Access to e-mail and the Internet remains extremely limited for civilians inside North Korea . Even so, some people are optimistic about the mini-IT revolution in North Korea as the article ends, "Most probably, it will eventually break North Korea's isolation, even if the country's powerful military also benefits from improved technologies. And there may be a day when the KCNA will have something more exciting to report about than 'A furnace-firing ceremony held at the Taean Friendship Glass Factory.'"

But I am not for that conclusion. Political scientists like to argue that economic (information) development and democratization go hand in hand. But for some countries, it is not that case. China is an example. Great IT development in China has not helped democratize that nation, and North Korea will be the same.


Will Buck said...

"IT revolution" is certainly not a phrase that immediately comes to mind when one thinks about North Korea. It is not surprising to learn however, that in the context of the North, access is concentrated heavily among the country's elites, and that a bulk of energies devoted to IT development have been focused on military capabilities.

I'd have to disagree with Diana's last point about China. Certainly, an IT revolution has not brought about an immediate transition to "democracy" in the conventional sense. However, looking back, at the last decade in particular, I think the liberalizing effects of the IT revolution and economic integration on the political structure have been considerable.

Trends suggest, if not a transition to conventional democracy, at least an ongoing evolution towards institutionalized good governance. I consider major milestones and measuring sticks of change to include the inclusion of entrepreneurs into the CCP; increased rhetoric and legislation to create a democratic identity in China, consisting of ideas of "consultative democracy" and "democratic centralism"; a growing effort to tackle corruption and improve government transparency (a new law was recently proposed pertaining to this issue); and of course the recent passing of a property rights law.

I think that all of these factors suggest a gradual transition going on. Even if conventional democracy has yet to materialize, there are signs of political evolution.

diana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
diana said...

Will, I agree with you that the current government in China is working toward a good governance. But in the process, IT has never become a revolutionizing force. Rather, IT was sucessfully kept under the Chinese government's control.

A true democracy needs a strong presence of a civil society. But China has not.

Will Buck said...

I see your point. I am not familiar with China's civil society. Perhaps, despite an increasing number of internet users in China, IT development has not had the revolutionizing effect some claim that it should on creating a civil society or inspiring political reform. Theoretically though, I still feel like IT should have an effect, and that to some degree it has.

China has largely been effective in policing the internet to cover up any politically-destabilizing material. At the same time, I think this has been a reaction on the CCP's part, not a preemptive strike. Eventually the sea of information becomes so vast, you can't police all of it.

I think IT development eliminates the government's monopoly on information. As a result, it promotes transparency and keeps the government honest, two major facets of good governance. By proliferating information, I think it enables the emergence of civil society, inspiring people to take up causes, etc. I think to some degree this has emerged in China, perhaps not on a national scale, but certainly in terms of local affairs.

As for North Korea, I do agree with you that it will take a lot more than a localized IT sector in the DPRK to usher in political reform. I think in the Chinese context, IT development followed economic reform and opening. Pyongyang will first have to pursue economic reforms and undergo some considerable development before the IT revolution can have any meaningful political impact north of the 38th parellel.