Although North Korea has recently had an explosive growth of 3G subscribers and a homemade Android tablet, most people are probably not thinking about North Korea’s tech scene. Our friend John Yohan Kim, who sits on the board of the Choson Exchange, which trains young female entrepreneurs in North Korea, gives us an intimate take on North Korea’s landscape. We grabbed an interview with him on his latest trip to North Korea to get the scoop on the elusive tech scene there.
Note: Pyongyang Informatics Center or the Korea Computer Center are two of the most viable options for young computer technology students to learn and try out new technologies.
Is this your first time to North Korea? What was the purpose of your visit?
I travel to the DPRK on average about once a year as I’m involved in some non-profit work there. On this particular trip I went to speak at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) where they were holding their second International Conference. Over the course of the last two conferences they have hosted a former NASA Astronaut, a member of the UK House of Lords, and a Nobel Laureate amongst other distinguished guests, so taking part was certainly a humbling experience for me.
What topics were discussed at the conference?
PUST has three programs of study. 1. Agriculture and Life Sciences 2. International Finance and Management and 3. Electrical and Computer Engineering, but the ECE department is by far the largest so the conference had a heavy tech influence. We had some presentations from overseas speakers, but the faculty were also quite impressive. Classes are taught entirely in English, all professors are from overseas, and many have been educated at top institutes of higher learning in the US and South Korea (Harvard, MIT, KAIST, Seoul National) and have worked at the world’s top companies (Google, IBM).
But I have to say I was most impressed by the students who presented at the conference. Topics included cloud computing, robotics, autonomous vehicles and encryption. One of their professors asked if any companies in Singapore might have ideas for a real world applications research project so if any of your readers would like some free programming help please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With all these presentations on cloud computing and robotics from students, what’s the plan going forward with where these students would end up?
The students I spoke with had Korean Computer Centers (KCC) and PIC (which is actually a unit of KCC) as the two options at the top of the list. There are other local IT companies like Daeyang and several joint ventures like Pheonix Commercial Ventures and Nosotek as well as IT subsidiaries of large local firms like Unha Corporation or Korea Roksan General Trading Company.
Some graduates may also consider further research at one of the country’s academic institutions. Kim Il Sung University is the top overall school in the DPRK, but Kim Chaek University is widely known as the top engineering school. Almost all of PUST’s ECE students are from these two schools and it wouldn’t surprise me if some went back to teach and conduct research. I also hope that we’ll see more of them starting companies to apply some of their knowledge and help develop the economy, but I’m not sure that students see a clear path to entrepreneurship just yet.
What is internet usage in the DPRK currently like?
Well, to be honest, most of the country largely operates on an intranet more than an internet as we’d know it. PUST graduate students have access to the wider internet and faculty have pretty open access, although I heard certain South Korean news sites were blocked. Mobile penetration is also growing with close to 2m users now, though again locals and foreigners have different access levels to each other and the outside world.
Are there any significant startups that are working on problems in NK?
I sit on the board of a DPRK focused non-profit called the Choson Exchange, and our flagship program now runs programs targeted at high potential female entrepreneurs. We’ve trained hundreds of North Koreans and have seen many startup proposals but generally not much in the tech sector. Most computer science and electrical engineering grads from the top universities go on to work at the Pyongyang Informatics Center or the Korea Computer Center (maker of the Samjiyon Tablet). I told all the grad students I met to call me if they wanted investment for their startups, but I mostly got blank stares back. Hopefully we see a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem but we’re clearly in early days.
Can you tell us more about the Pyongyang Informatics Center or the KCC? I assume they are government institutions? What are their goals and programs?
They are indeed government affiliated, but most organizations in the DPRK have some form of government affiliation. I know KCC has done outsourcing work for clients in Europe, China, South Korea and Japan but also develops its own products for the local market including a local search engine, the Samjiyon tablet and several gaming and education programs. As for their goals, that’s a topic for a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say the the citizens of the DPRK are extremely focused on helping their country and their leadership. Part of that effort naturally gravitates around economic development, so international companies that do not share the ultimate goal of DPRK state glorification can still share interests through tapping high quality programming skills at reasonable costs.
What is the government approach to technology at the moment? I understand Instagram and Twitter were once open and 3G was on for foreigners?
Foreigners can buy a 3G SIM for their phones that allows them to communicate with the outside world. I didn’t buy one myself but I heard it’s a couple hundred dollars. In general, the government seems willing to experiment in adopting new technology as long as it doesn’t risk upsetting the balance of power in the country. Every country is unique, but we’ve seen countries like China, Vietnam and Burma all go through similar transitions in the past.
(Credit to John Yohan Kim for the pictures)
(Editing by Josh Horwitz)
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