With a single 3G network, N. Korea relies on Wi-Fi to deliver state content

North Korea has a previously unknown second intranet, a development that sheds a little more light on the secretive state's network infrastructure.

The network, Daeyang, is subscription-only and is apparently configured to provide certain content to certain regions, Daily NK website reported earlier this month.

The network is based on low-cost WiFi access points rather than more expensive cellular infrastructure.

Like the national intranet, the Mirae, also Wi-Fi-based, Daeyang requires authentication every time a user accesses it. That authentication might include multiple steps, including a SIM – even for a Wi-Fi network – and password.

A second WiFi-based intranet has been discovered in Pyongyang, with verification required every time users access it.
 (Source:Piotr Adamowicz/Alamy Stock Photo)
A second WiFi-based intranet has been discovered in Pyongyang, with verification required every time users access it.
(Source:Piotr Adamowicz/Alamy Stock Photo)

"It differs from the existing state intranet in that it has restricted boundaries and range, allowing users to access specific data from specific regions," the Daily NK reported, citing an unnamed source.

Mirae has been around since 2018, working mostly like any other Wi-Fi network except that it only allows access to domestic websites. It is commonly accessible in urban areas but has poor coverage in rural districts.

It also requires a SIM and multiple steps to verify the user identity. The SIM enables government agencies to surveil users on the network as well as enabling monetization.

Limited capability

Daeyang appears to be akin to a corporate intranet, with certain customized websites and data for certain organizations. Daily NK's source said the government planned to expand the service, with more access points to be deployed primarily in North Korea's large cities.

The Daeyang network was set up by the State Affairs Commission, the top government body, and is run by the Ministry of Information Industry's Pyongyang Information Technology Bureau.

The heavy reliance on Wi-Fi to deliver state network content is no doubt driven by the limited capability of North Korea's sole 3G cellular network and the international sanctions that prevent any upgrade.

The 3G system was largely built and funded by Egypt-based Orascom, using technology gear from Huawei.

Orascom found that despite successfully running the operator, Koryolink, for a decade from 2008 it was unable to repatriate its profits because of the strict currency rules.

In 2015 the DPRK government settled the issue by giving control of the company to Orascom's partner, Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp (KPTC). Koryolink is now one of three owners of the 3G network.

The dependence on 3G puts North Korea a dozen years behind the rest of the world, although a new surveillance network on the Chinese border is reported to likely be 5G.

According to the Korea Development Bank Future Strategy Research Institute, mobile phone ownership has continued to rise even as the economy has contracted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research institute estimated a total of 6 million mobile subscribers in mid-2020, with 4.5 million people, or around 17%, owning at least one mobile phone. In Pyongyang and the Rason special economic zone the figure rose to 70%.

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— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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