Censorship in North Korea: How to Stay Safe Online

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Censorship in North Korea: A Short Summary

It is nearly impossible to get online in North Korea. Citizens are hemmed in by draconian censorship laws and risk being punished for accessing any information that isn’t government-approved. The government uses censorship and propaganda to control public opinion and protect the interests of the ruling elites.

Foreign journalists are offered a little bit of freedom in the country. However, North Korean authorities lash out hard against political dissent and keep a close eye on all reporters.

If you find yourself visiting North Korea, you’ll most likely be allowed access to a 3G network. To make sure your online activities remain secure and private, it is advisable that you use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on all your devices.

A VPN creates an encrypted online tunnel that protects your data. We recommend using a premium VPN with advanced security features like NordVPN.

NordVPN has a large server network that allows you to access information and services from all over the world. It also safeguards your online presence.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the right to freedom of opinion and expression is a fundamental right of every human being. In North Korea, however, there is no freedom of expression. The media is completely state-controlled and serves as the mouthpiece of the government. Independent news sources, if any, operate in exile.

North Korea’s draconian censorship measures affect both the traditional and online media landscape. Only a few privileged citizens have access to the internet, which is state-controlled. Since the government does not tolerate any type of dissent, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are all banned in the country.

Nevertheless, some North Korean citizens still find ways around the stranglehold of state censorship. For visitors to the country, it is essential to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). With ever-tightening internet restrictions, VPNs provide an avenue to stay connected to the outside world. A VPN with strong security features, like NordVPN, will help to keep your data secure and allow you to access blocked websites without being detected by the authorities.

Read on to learn more about censorship in North Korea and how to get around it, should you ever travel there.


Media Freedom in North Korea

Infographic showing media freedom in North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly known as North Korea, is one of the most oppressive nations in the world. It has a one-party dictatorship with a dynastic ruling system. At the moment, North Korea ranks 179 out of 180 on the World Freedom Index, a position that is second-worst only to Eritrea.

Emigration and immigration are tightly controlled in North Korea. Citizens are generally not allowed to travel freely within the state, or even consider crossing the border. This also applies to the flow of information; North Korea deliberately maintains tyrannical control of all media and cuts its population off from global influence.

There is virtually no press freedom in North Korea. The two main sources of news in the country are the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. These are the official North Korean media outlets, and they primarily inform citizens about state-related news, ostensibly on the whereabouts of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. However, they also exist to appease foreign onlookers, presenting a very selective and false narrative about the state of affairs in the DPRK.

State-controlled propaganda

In North Korea, propaganda is the backbone of censorship. KCNA only shows documentaries and programs that portray the Kim family and North Korean politics in a good light. This has been the modus operandi of the media for many years even prior to Kim Jong-il, the predecessor and father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un.

By law, there is no room for dissenting views or personal opinions. Expressing criticism of the Workers’ Party or the ruling Kim family is illegal. The ever-present threat of punishment and the lack of diverse information forces North Koreans into compliance.

In schools, children are taught to view the political leaders as brilliant figures, who devote their lives to the country. Daily patrol groups ensure that no dissenting ideas can be spread around neighborhoods.

To keep up the facade, North Korean journalists relentlessly advocate for the ruling party. Their job is essentially to warp current affairs until it is in line with state propaganda, even when this is factually incorrect.

The requirements for becoming a journalist in the country include passing an ideology review and a thorough background check. Additionally, there is a probation period of four to five years.

Foreign media in North Korea

North Korea doesn’t allow many foreign media into its borders. Foreign reporters are often defamed as liars, tasked to undermine and destabilize the Kim regime.

Where political affairs are concerned, the small number of reporters who are occasionally granted access to the country are strongly discouraged from talking to North Korean citizens. Typically, guides accompany visitors to make sure they are not gathering information. And residents generally won’t talk to journalists without getting permission from the authorities.

In 2013, the DPRK made a 3G network connection available to foreign reporters and visitors to the country. Even so, there are some restrictions. A local SIM card is required to go online and make international calls. Also, platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are unavailable.

Internet censorship

In North Korea, ordinary citizens only have access to the country’s intranet network while party leaders, high ranking officials, and a few elite citizens have a degree of access to the real internet.

The national intranet network, called Kwangmyong, which means “bright star” in Korean, is the only way North Koreans can get online. This tightly controlled cyberspace provides access to between 1,000 and 5,000 websites and platforms.

Kwangmyong runs on pirated Japanese versions of Microsoft software and is pretty rudimentary in terms of its features. Most internet users still use a dial-up connection to access the web or go to computer labs. The websites and platforms on North Korea’s intranet network are isolated from the global internet. These websites primarily provide information about national affairs.

Meanwhile, state-sponsored hackers, high-ranking government officials, and tourists, who can access the real internet in North Korea, have to contend with restrictions. As indicated above, several social media platforms are blocked in the country. Also, emails and messages are heavily monitored.


Why Does North Korea Censor the Internet?

Since 1948, the DPRK has been ruled by the Kim dynasty. And all censorship measures appear to be designed to strengthen and preserve the prestige and power of this family. Control is exercised on a physical, institutional, and ideological level. The cornerstone of the system is the Juche ideology.

Juche is a set of political principles that emphasize political independence, economic self-sufficiency, and military self-reliance. North Korea’s tendency to isolate itself from the rest of the world is a direct result of this philosophy, as is its state-sponsored  propaganda.

The ultimate goal appears to be to mask the reality of things in the country, both from North Koreans and the rest of the world. As long as the population is bombarded with a warped interpretation of history, beautified ideologies, and flattering reports of the ruling family, the reality of hardships and human rights violations remains out of sight.

Self-censorship

Self censorship iconSince there is no right to assembly or association in the DPRK, and civil society organizations are non-existent, people don’t have any space to talk freely.

With a long history of oppression, torture, and punishment, North Korean citizens do not dare speak their minds or counter the regime.

While North Korean authorities monitor all internet traffic, there is less technical surveillance than people might expect. This is a direct result of the fear and self-censorship that exists in the collective psyche of North Korean citizens.


What Content is Being Censored?

Infographic showing what content is being censored in North Korea

Like Myanmar, North Korea’s far-reaching censorship measures cast a wide net over different types of content including social media and websites with potentially dissenting views. Generally, every type of content that provides information contrary to what the state approves is censored.

The online censorship in North Korea appears to have two goals: restricting citizens’ access to the world wide web, while simultaneously keeping the rest of the world out of its domestic affairs. The censorship also plays to the cult of personality around Kim Jong-un.

Traditional media

Foreign newspapers and magazines are completely unavailable in the DPRK. Only the state-controlled news sources we highlighted above are available in the country.

One of the main ways the North Korean government sustains support for its ideology is by erasing all evidence of its political history.

You won’t find any old newspapers in a North Korean library. In true Orwellian fashion, traditional print media gets destroyed after a couple of years to protect the ruling party from any potential opposition. If the Workers’ Party changes the course of its policies or gets caught in political scandals, people won’t be able to collect evidence.

After Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of Kim Jong-un, was convicted of treason in 2013 and subsequently executed, tens of thousands of articles that made mention of Jang were erased from databases. Additionally, his image was digitally removed from photos with North Korean officials, as though he had never existed.

International websites and social media

The limited number of websites on the Kwangmyong network are filtered and monitored. The network is mostly used by universities, libraries, businesses, and government institutions. Instead of Google or Firefox, North Koreans use “Our Country”, the national search engine.

In 2016, the DPRK officially began to block social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to keep tighter control over the flow of information. These platforms had already been unavailable in the country prior to the ban.

Gambling and adult websites are also prohibited. People who try to access such platforms are subject to punishment.

Threats to national ideology

Generally, censorship in North Korea applies to anything that can be considered a threat to the state, Kim Jong-un, or the Juche ideology. Occasionally, the government will allow a very small number of foreign films or TV programs into the country, but this is very rare.

The DPRK has been ruled by the Workers’ Party since it was founded in the 1940s. Any expression of political opposition, both online and offline, is considered treason and could attract harsh punishment.

The state controls all flow of information, including school curriculums. North Korea’s censorship further extends to religious groups, women, and minorities. There is no freedom of religious assembly, and the government outright denies the existence of LGBTQ+ people.

Internet access for overseas citizens

From time to time, North Korea also bans internet access for diplomats and citizens who live abroad. This happened in 2017, when the killing of Kim Jong-nam, the step-brother of Kim Jong-un, came to light. An official warning informed North Korean citizens overseas that searching for or spreading information about the execution could lead to forced return and “severe” punishment.


How Does North Korea Censor the Internet?

Infographic showing how North Korea censors the internet

North Korea is sometimes referred to as the “hermit kingdom” as information barely gets in and out of the country.

Telecom sector

The telecommunications sector in the DPRK is completely under the control of the authorities. The infrastructure is entirely state-run. Moreover, surveillance technology is heavily integrated, making it impossible for North Koreans to go unmonitored.

Phone calls and internet activity are continuously under the surveillance of North Korea’s State Security Department. It is punishable by law to make international phone calls. The Bureau uses sophisticated technology to detect mobile phone frequencies.

Radio and TV stations must be checked by and registered with the police before they are allowed to operate. Also, radios and television sets are configured to prevent North Koreans from being able to tune into anything other than domestic frequencies or channels.

The majority of physical internet connections in the DPRK run through mountains in the north and connect via the Chinese state-run agency, Unicom, to the outside world. This means that besides its censorship, North Korea is also behind the Great Firewall.

Surveillance

In recent years, North Korea has gradually eased restrictions on the use of portable devices, including mobile phones and tablets.

Mobile phones were banned between 2004 and 2008. In 2008, a 3G network service called Koryolink was introduced. While it opened up mobile communications to a certain extent, the service is completely state-controlled and only supports domestic phone calls.

As the use of portable devices blossoms in the country, so has the development of North Korean spyware. In 2017, North Korea released a tablet for sale exclusively in the country. The Ullim tablet was sourced from Chinese electronic companies and runs on Android. The device is modified to grant the North Korean government complete control.

Portable devices sold in North Korea come pre-installed with officially approved applications and run on a software program called “Red Flag.” This software records all browsing history and takes a screenshot every time a user opens a new app. The devices also come with “Trace Viewer,” a software that stores data and prevents users from deleting records.

Additionally, apps can only be downloaded if they are on the list of approved applications. It is nearly impossible to use the tablet for anything other than accessing government-sanctioned content.

Besides this, the North Korean government invests millions of dollars in security cameras each year to keep an eye on its population. This surveillance equipment is primarily installed on the South Korea and Chinese border, and other key locations.

Threats and physical force

Around the world, human rights organizations continue to express concern about the high level of crimes against humanity that take place in North Korea. Censorship is upheld with the threat of torture, murder, imprisonment, enslavement, rape, and other forms of violence.

Those who behave disagreeably risk being sent to atrocious political prison camps, often on arbitrary charges. The result is fearful obedience from a population that doesn’t have any alternative at their disposal.

Defection from North Korea is considered “treachery against the nation.” After three failed escapes, the defector along with three generations of their family, all face execution.


How to Get Around Censorship in North Korea?

Despite the risks and challenges, some North Koreans still attempt to gain access to information. From listening to South Korean stations with unregistered radios to smuggling South Korean dramas and other foreign DVDs into the country, people continue to search out independent media in whatever way they can.

Some people, mostly foreigners, resort to using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to get access to the internet while in North Korea. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device and the internet, which keeps your data protected and allows you to access content that is otherwise blocked.

How does a VPN bypass North Korea’s internet censorship

VPN technology is one of the top solutions for people across the world who want to bypass internet censorship. It allows you to access the internet without being tracked or potentially compromising your privacy.

When you use a VPN, the traffic to/from your device is encrypted. This makes it nearly impossible for anyone to see what you’re doing online. Typically, when using a VPN, your ISP or anyone who inspects your data packets may be able to tell that you’re using a VPN. However, premium VPN providers like NordVPN have obfuscated servers that make VPN traffic appear like regular traffic to avoid detection.

Apart from encrypting your data, VPNs also hide your IP address and route your internet traffic through a server in any location of your choosing. Furthermore, leading VPN providers have the technology to penetrate the firewall in North Korea and other countries that enforce online censorship.

VPNs also come with an array of additional features to enhance your security online and make the web openly accessible. Ultimately, a VPN ensures you stay anonymous online and access content that would otherwise be blocked to you.

Prohibited VPN iconUsing a VPN in North Korea is prohibited. As stated above, North Koreans can face harsh punishments for trying to access content that is not government-sanctioned.

However, the rules appear to be more relaxed for visitors to the country. If anything, using a VPN when you’re within North Korea’s borders is a good way to protect your privacy online.

Keep in mind that, because of North Korea’s isolation policies, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of how authorities respond to international visitors using VPNs. So, it is advisable to stay cautious and use a VPN service with excellent security features.


Best VPNs for North Korea

Best VPNs for North Korea iconSince the DPRK is cut off from the rest of the world, virtually no VPN provider has servers inside the country. However, connecting to a server in South Korea will give you decent connection speeds to browse the web. What’s more important is how the VPN performs on the security and privacy front.

Considering how strict North Korea’s regime is, we don’t recommend that you use a free VPN service when you’re visiting the country. Aside from the possibility that the service won’t be able to get past North Korean restrictions, there is also a high risk that your data will be exposed.

If you’re traveling to different countries in East Asia, you can certainly check out our free VPN recommendations. For North Korea, however, we suggest you choose a premium VPN provider.

We’ve outlined our top 3 VPNs for you below.

1. NordVPN: The best and safest VPN for North Korea

With 10 servers in South Korea and over 5,000 servers worldwide, NordVPN is easily the best choice for anyone visiting the DPRK. It is known for its reliable and fast server network. NordVPN allows you to access any online content, from independent news sources like the BBC to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

NordVPN offers top-notch security features including AES 256-bit encryption, a wide network of RAM-based diskless servers, a built-in kill switch, automatic malware scanning, and a strict no-log policy. This ensures your data is safe and private. Additionally, NordVPN offers dedicated obfuscated servers for countries with strict internet censorship, such as North Korea. These servers disguise your traffic so it is impossible to tell that you’re using a VPN.

NordVPN runs on all major operating systems and the VPN app has a well-organized, sleek, and easy-to-navigate interface. It’s a great pick for beginners as well as experienced VPN users.

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2. Surfshark: A cheap alternative VPN for North Korea

If you are looking for a more affordable VPN provider, Surfshark is the best choice. Their server network consists of 3,000+ servers in more than 65 countries, including South Korea.

Besides 256-bit encryption and excellent VPN protocols, including OpenVPN and WireGuard, Surfshark has a couple of additional security features that are very useful if you’re visiting North Korea. The stealth mode function, for example, hides the fact that you are using a VPN from internet service providers (ISPs) and other prying eyes.

Another great thing about Surfshark is that you can connect as many devices as you like with the same account. This VPN supports an unlimited number of simultaneous connections. It can also help you unblock access to the free web in censorship-heavy territories like India too.

Surfshark is compatible with all the top operating systems available today, and the app has a simple design. It is very easy to use. Although Surfshark has a lot of features, they’ve managed to create a simple user interface that is not intimidating for beginners.

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3. ExpressVPN: Fast servers to unblock international content

ExpressVPN is also a good choice for North Korea. This VPN provider offers fast speeds and excellent unblocking capabilities. With a network of 3,000 servers globally, you’ll be able to access independent information from anywhere.

Like NordVPN and Surfshark, ExpressVPN also uses AES 265-bit encryption to protect your data. Additionally, it comes with a kill switch and DNS protection. This VPN uses TrustedServer technology which deletes all your data each time you restart your connection to a server.

You’ll find an ExpressVPN app for your device regardless of the type of operating system you’re using. The design of the VPN app is very user-friendly and it comes with numerous features.

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Final Thoughts

The North Korean media landscape is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. Citizens are only allowed to go online via the Kwangmyong intranet, a highly censored and heavily monitored cyberspace. Foreigners are allowed to access a 3G network, but most social media platforms and web pages are inaccessible.

The government of North Korea uses extreme propaganda and surveillance technology to coerce public opinion in its favor. There is no freedom of expression. Those who speak out against the regime are severely punished, tortured, detained, enslaved, or even executed. In an attempt to keep international human rights organizations off its back, North Korea barely allows any foreign journalists within its borders.

In a dictatorship like North Korea, the free flow of information is not guaranteed. If you’re a journalist, activist, or one of the few visitors who get to travel to the DPRK, using a VPN like NordVPN will allow you to stay connected to the outside world while keeping your data safe and online activities private.

Censorship in North Korea: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have any questions about censorship in North Korea? Check out our FAQ below to get some answers.

As a traveler in North Korea, you can use the internet, but there are many restrictions.

You will get access to a mobile 3G connection. However, many platforms, like social media and news websites, are blocked. The government of North Korea punishes anyone who tries to access or spread information that it considers threatening to the country’s leadership and their grip on power.

Read our full article to learn more about censorship and how to go online freely and safely in North Korea.

Yes, North Korea has one of the worst censorship regimes in the world. It is a one-party state ruled by a dynasty family. In order to preserve public support and protect its power base, the North Korean government doesn’t allow independent media or freedom of expression in the country.

The internet is so radically censored that ordinary North Koreans can only access about 1,000 – 5,000 government-sanctioned websites on the country’s intranet service called Kwangmyong.

The entire telecom sector in North Korea is state-owned. People are only allowed to listen to government-approved radio stations and watch whitelisted TV channels. If you purchase an electronic device, it will come with pre-installed North Korean spyware.

Foreign media is not allowed. Additionally, North Korea’s domestic journalists spread disinformation that strengthens the regime. If they fail to do so, they can be imprisoned, tortured, or exiled.

Yes, YouTube is one of the many platforms banned in North Korea. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are also banned.

High ranking officials, elite citizens, and international visitors to the country have access to the global internet through a 3G network. Their online activities, however, are heavily monitored.

NordVPN is the best VPN for North Korea thanks to its excellent security features and wide server network. NordVPN is one of the few VPN providers that has multiple servers in South Korea, which is close enough to North Korea to provide optimal speeds.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.