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Friday, December 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

North Korea's tech agenda showing fitful progress

By Sang-Hun Choe
The Associated Press

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, whose sayings are followed by his people with a religious fervor, has defined three types of fools in the 21st century: people who smoke, people who don't appreciate music and people who can't use a computer.

Small wonder, then, the communist state's elite are rushing to become tech-savvy in the Internet age.

"In North Korea, a job with the computer is considered a token of privilege," said Tak Eun Hyok, a North Korean army sergeant who defected to South Korea last year. "Everyone wants to learn the computer, believing they can get good jobs."

After leading his impoverished country into the elite ranks of countries that can launch multistage rockets and build atomic weapons, North Korea's reclusive Kim has set his eyes on a new frontier: computer technology. Under his order, the North is now pushing its best and brightest to learn the new technology.

His campaign is making fitful progress, however, hamstrung by U.S.-led economic sanctions that block the country from importing the latest computer hardware, and slowed by North Korea's self-imposed ban on e-mail and the Internet, where seditious, yet eye-opening insights on the outside world lurk just a few mouse clicks away.

Nonetheless, the country's 1.1 million-soldier military, the backbone of Kim's totalitarian rule, has been quick to embrace the Dear Leader's new directives. Today, the military, down to the battalion level, receives orders by computer, Tak said.

Computer science tops the list of subjects young military officers and college students want to study.

"We get some of the brightest North Koreans in our projects," said Lee Kwang-hak at South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co., which has been outsourcing to Pyongyang's Korean Computer Center since 2000.

Samsung asks North Korean engineers to build software for Internet search engines and media players. But so far, their productivity is only about half that of Russian and Indian engineers assigned to Samsung projects, Lee said.

"Working with North Koreans, you feel like you are using a shovel to do a job you can do with an industrial earthmover," Lee said. "But they are working hard and eager to learn. We are there to secure the cream of North Korean brainpower. For us, it's a long-term venture."

Free flow of Internet data and e-mail would be anathema to the North Korean regime, which has vowed to shut out "degeneration, violence, and corrupt sex culture" of the West. Although military units, cooperative farms and government agencies are rapidly installing computers, few ordinary North Koreans have computer or e-mail access. Televisions and radios come with channels fixed for government-controlled media.

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"What would normally take a few minutes to send by e-mail now takes us three days to send to our clients in Pyongyang," said Kim Jong-se, an official at South Korea's Hanaro Telecom.

South Korea's EBS educational TV channel began broadcasting Hanaro's "Pororo The Penguin," a 3-D animation series, last month. It is the first cartoon show made in North Korea and broadcast in the South.

Hanaro sends its files by e-mail to its Beijing agent, which downloads them and send them in a compact disc to Pyongyang by air mail — all because North Korea wouldn't do business through e-mail.

North Korea staged a trade show in Beijing in April last year to promote its software. Last month, it said it has begun an international e-mail service that "guarantees the privacy of correspondence," but revealed little detail. Outside visitors say that only a few North Korean organizations, such as tourism authorities, have e-mail.

"Although a late starter, North Korea is eager to do business involving computers," says Nelson Shin, head of the Los Angles-based KOAA Film, which is making a $6.5 million animation film, hiring work from a well-known animation producer in North Korea, SEK Studio. "They seem to be recognizing the computer as an important source of national power."

Kim Jong Il visited software labs and high-tech hubs during his rare trips to China and Russia in 2000 and 2001. Under Kim's rule, North Korea has opened computer labs, made computer education compulsory at schools and even claims to have developed a drink for computer fatigue. In 2001, Kim declared he would "computerize the whole country."

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