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Beyond the DMZ: Tweeting from North Korea

Brandon Griggs, CNN
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses with security officers in this government-published photograph.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses with security officers in this government-published photograph.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jean H. Lee may have been the first person to send a mobile tweet from North Korea
  • The country last month launched a new 3G wireless network, available only to foreigners
  • Lee, of the AP, is the only U.S. reporter granted regular access to the secretive nation
  • She spoke Saturday at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Texas

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- "North Korean social media." In the famously restrictive country, where people have almost no Internet contact with the outside world, it sounds like an oxymoron.

But on February 25, Jean H. Lee of the Associated Press became perhaps the first person to send a mobile tweet from North Korea when she posted a message on the country's new 3G wireless network, available only to foreigners.

"Hello world from comms center in ‪#Pyongyang‬," she wrote. Lee has been active from North Korea on Instagram as well, posting snapshots of street scenes, food and government propaganda posters.

As the AP's bureau chief for both South and North Korea, Lee is the only American news reporter granted regular access to the secretive nation, which she has visited more than 20 times. She offered a rare glimpse of digital life beyond the DMZ -- the strip of land separating North Korea from its more open rival to the south -- during an onstage chat here Saturday at the South by Southwest Interactive festival.

Jean H. Lee, Korea bureau chief for the AP, speaking Saturday at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Jean H. Lee, Korea bureau chief for the AP, speaking Saturday at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

At a time when North Korea is responding to tougher sanctions from the U.N. Security Council with angry rhetoric and threats, Lee described a country with two parallel digital worlds -- one for residents and another for foreign visitors. While foreigners now have access to fast broadband Internet, with no firewall blocking certain sites, North Koreans can only use a state-controlled intranet service.

The country lags behind much of the world when it comes to digital adoption, but there are signs that North Korea is trying to catch up, Lee said. The new Koryolink 3G network -- jointly owned by the North Korean government and an Egyptian company -- that launched last month marks a shift in policy for Kim Jong Un's regime, which also has recently begun to allow foreigners to bring their cellphones into the country.

"We are starting to see more openness," she said. "We're talking baby steps. They're a long way from being a free and open society."

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When Lee first visited Pyongyang in 2008, security officers confiscated her iPhone at the airport, she said.

"I freaked out," she said. "I tried to hide it in my pocket."

Lee is joined in her social media updates from Pyongyang by AP photographer David Guttenfelder, who posts images often to his 71,000 Instagram followers. His photos offer a fascinating peek at North Korean life and culture: Teens skating on a roller track, a woman braving a snowstorm, photos of his in-flight meal on Air Koryo, North Korea's airline.

Lee said that North Korea, a country of about 25 million people, has only about 1 million cellphones, although the devices are gaining in popularity. North Koreans can't access Facebook or Twitter, although they have primitive social networks -- sort of like online bulletin boards -- where users share thoughts about innocuous topics such as pop music, she said.

Everything North Koreans do online is tied to their identity, Lee said, so it's easy for the government to monitor users' intranet behavior. Lee said she has spent a little time on the country's limited web but hasn't seen any evidence of people using underground networks to talk more freely.

"I would like to (see that). But it would be very dangerous, I imagine," she said. "They have a culture of fear in North Korea that still exists. That's something that isn't going to change right away."

When former NBA star Dennis Rodman made a bizarre visit to Pyongyang last month, Lee said she encouraged the unlikely ambassador to take advantage of the nation's new 3G cellular network. He took her advice, later tweeting, "I come in peace. I love the people of North Korea!"

Lee said the North Korean government has never tried to censor what she reports. But she is mindful that authorities may be monitoring her Web use.

"In any situation where I'm accessing their broadband, they can probably see everything I'm doing," she said.

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