PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — It's late afternoon at the e-library in North Korea's Kim Il Sung University, where row after row of smartly dressed students sit quietly, their faces bathed in the glow of computer displays as they surf the Internet. On the surface, it's a familiar-seeming scene, which is exactly why officials are offering it up for a look.
North Korea is literally off the charts regarding Internet freedoms. There essentially aren't any. But the country is increasingly online. Though it deliberately and meticulously keeps its people isolated and in the dark about the outside world, it knows it must enter the information age to survive in the global economy.
As with so many other aspects of its internal workings, North Korea has tried hard to keep its relationship to the Internet hidden from foreign eyes. But it opened that door just a crack recently for The Associated Press to reveal a self-contained, tightly controlled Intranet called Kwangmyong, or "Bright."
North Korea thinks Bright is the authoritarian answer to the freewheeling Internet.
One of the first things an outside observer notices at Kim Il Sung U is that the students are actually studying. Not wasting time on Facebook or Reddit, no BuzzFeed. In fact, the sites they surf most likely aren't even on the Internet, but on the North-Korea-only Bright.
Chats and email? Monitored.
Content? Restricted to the point that the use of Bright hardly even needs to be watched by officials.
How about the OS? It's "Red Star," now available in version 3.0, which looks a lot like the Microsoft operating system, but is used only in North Korea. Red Star has audio and video players, and even a game — Korean chess. There's a Firefox-style search engine called "Our Country" that helps users navigate around an estimated 1,000 to 5,500 websites, mostly for universities, government offices, libraries and state-run corporations. Most North Koreans have no access to the Internet at all.
"The goal is to reap the benefits of information technology, while keeping out potentially corrosive foreign influences," said Scott Bruce, a North Korea IT expert and analyst at the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit CRDF Global.
Copies of Red Star have found their way outside of the North and been studied abroad. But North Korea is so secretive about Bright, which it launched more than a decade ago, that it is off-limits to even the foreign technical advisers it brings in. It can be accessed only in the North and is meant exclusively for domestic use.
"I haven't had a time when I've been allowed to use the Intranet — since the point is that it is not open to foreigners," said Will Scott, a computer sciences instructor at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology who has worked about as closely with North Korea's attempt to get wired as any other foreigner.
Through daily interactions with North Korean students at his university, however, Scott has been able to glean a general outline of what Bright is all about.