Despite the fact that very few North Koreans have a computer, let alone Internet access, Red Star is designed to provide a safe operating environment in line with North Korean political philosophy of “juche,” or self-reliance (as well as, admittedly, monitor user activity).
The Red Star O.S. takes fifteen minutes to install, uses a popular Korean folk song as its start-up music and features a calendar which starts counting time from the birth of Kim Il-sung, making 2010 the year 99. Amazingly, it’s Linux-based, with open-source programs that are heavily Microsoft-influenced: a few Office-style programs and some games (check out this hilarious screenshot of Red Star minesweeper). It has its own email system, called Pigeon, and runs Firefox as the default web browser — with the North Korean government website as its home page, of course.
It only runs in Korean.
Our operating systems are metaphors — literally, “desktop metaphors” — which allow us to navigate complex systems of information, both within and without our computers. They represent, to a certain extent, a quotidian suspension of disbelief, a kind of communal illusion: that hardware, chips, RAM memory and pixels can be momentarily transformed into a type-written letter, a recognizable image, or a “desk” upon which our “files” patiently sit. An OS is already a construction, an imaginary environment; our so-called “normal,” non-ideological operating systems (the XPs and the Snow Leopards of the West) delineate the facts of our social reality just as Red Star describes its own world. In fact, I have a theory that if an alien anthropologist landed on Earth and sat down with a copy of Windows for a long enough time, it could infer a great deal about our world, perhaps going back centuries. We have things built into the very fabric of our operating systems that function solely because we expect them to, based on centuries of human information-management. For example, we “scroll” through information, from top to bottom: how ancient is that?
I wonder if Red Star has equivalent cultural indicators, or if it’s simply based on our user-interface history. I bet it’s the latter, which is disappointing — but it doesn’t seem that Red Star is really about making a system that works with North Korean culture. After all, North Korea has its own Internet, too — a nationwide intranet called Kwangmyong — and not because of a cultural need to navigate the world’s information differently. Rather, it’s because of heavy state censorship that seeks to conceal and deny the existence of other modes of thought. Kwangmyong is an island of about 30 websites and an email service unconnected to the outside world. Only a few thousand people in the DPRK are allowed direct access to the real Internet; those elite North Koreans with access to the wild and wooly World Wide Web are supposed to pick through it to feed Kwangmyong. This way, the network remains up-to-date with current technical and scientific information, without its users having access to any questionable material.
Exploiting the Internet is the latest development in a long global tradition of acquiring foreign technology while rejecting the ideology of its source. European scholars of the Middle Ages translated into Latin the works of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Arzachel (Al-Zarqali), and other luminaries of the Arab world, whose knowledge of astronomy, medicine, and other sciences surpassed that of medieval Christendom. While embracing the scientific revelations of Arab civilization, Europe rejected the Islamic religion that constituted its foundation.
Asian rulers also have long accepted technical innovations from abroad while keeping out ideas inimical to their political order. Particularly adept at this practice, the Japanese acquired the fruits of Chinese technology over the centuries, while still developing their own distinct civilization. The Japanese slogan “wakon kansai” (Japanese spirit, Chinese learning) expressed the path taken….
Information technology alone cannot guarantee the rule of Kim Chong-il or of his party. Yet, the ability to gather the latest technical information without sending people abroad or bringing Westerners in could help keep the political structure intact against a host of pressures. Much as Japan kept out foreign religious and ideological currents while importing Western technology, so P’yongyang’s authorities could use the Internet for their own policy of “chohon yangjae” (Korean spirit, Western learning).
[Aside: I know it's beyond ironic to lend a Marxist reading to the various absurdities of North Korean politics, but in the words of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, "no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses."]
Kwangmyong and Red Star are self-contained systems, designed to mimic the material experience of being part of the information age without any of its complexities. What they provide — or, rather, what they don’t provide — defines how an entire country of people think, how they understand the world, and how they interact with one another. It’s terrifying, powerful, and, to say the least, ironic that open-source technology (Red Star) and communication networks (Kwangmyong) are contributing to the survival and progress of one of the world’s most secretive and ideologically closed regimes.