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A total cyber blackout in North Korea would affect about 1,000 citizens

North Korea is famous for its lack of Internet access, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleased when its servers happen to melt down. This morning, after reports of disruptions to its news services, the country lashed out at the United States and South Korea for allegedly shutting off its Internet. “It is nobody’s secret that ...

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This picture, taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on March 7, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) meeting with family of a soldier as he inspects Jangjae Islet Defence Detachment near South Korea's Taeyonphyong Island in South Hwanghae province, North Korea's southwestern sector of the front. AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea is famous for its lack of Internet access, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleased when its servers happen to melt down. This morning, after reports of disruptions to its news services, the country lashed out at the United States and South Korea for allegedly shutting off its Internet.

“It is nobody’s secret that the U.S. and the South Korean puppet regime are massively bolstering up cyber forces in a bid to intensify the subversive activities and sabotages against the DPRK,” said KCNA, the country’s chief propaganda outlet. “Intensive and persistent virus attacks are being made every day on Internet servers operated by the DPRK.”

KNCA provided scant details about the allegation, but the Associated Press reports that foreigners in Pyongyang said they could not get online on Wednesday or Thursday. A Bangkok-based company that services North Korea’s Internet also acknowledged a cyber attack but noted that servers were recovering on Friday. In any event, given North Korea’s reputation for prohibiting and censoring Internet use, how many of its citizens would actually be affected by a cyber blackout?

It turns out, a vanishingly small number. Though the DPRK doesn’t publish Internet penetration statistics, the estimates range from “a few hundred people” to “1,000 at most,”  according to analysts speaking with Agence France Presse. A less generous estimate offered by the BBC in December pinned unrestricted access to “just a few dozen families — most directly related to Kim Jong-un himself.” That’s because Internet use is banned for average citizens, though exceptions can be made for other types of people in the country.

For example, last month, foreign residents of Pyongyang were informed that a mobile Internet service would be available March 1, provided by Korean Post and Telecommunications Corporation and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom. But sorry locals. “The policy only covers those from outside the country,” reported Wired magazine. “Citizens of the country are still barred from making international calls and accessing the internet. As such the move is likely to be entirely centred around generating revenue from tourism and not a result of Eric Schmidt’s recent visit to the country.”

If you do manage to get online, you probably won’t like what you see. That’s because instead of the Internet, North Korea has the Intranet, a domestic service built in 2008 that isn’t connected to the rest of the world. As the BBC’s David Lee discovered while surfing the web in Pyongyang’s only cyber cafe, it’s a pretty lonely place:

What they see is an internet that is so narrow and lacking in depth it resembles more an extravagant company intranet than the expansive global network those outside the country know it to be.

Typical sites include news services – such as the Voice of Korea – and the official organ of the state, the Rodong Sinmun.

But anyone producing content for this “internet” must be careful.

Reporters Without Borders – an organisation which monitors global press freedom – said some North Korean “journalists” had found themselves sent to “revolutionisation” camps, simply for a typo in their articles.

At last check, the Internet appears to be back up for foreigners. About 48 minutes ago, for example, the AP’s chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder uploaded an Instagram photo of a violent propaganda painting inside a Pyongyang kindergarten. Hooray for the .0o1 percent?

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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