Trains Are the Social Networks of North Korea

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North Korea is, to put it mildly, not a country where information flows easily. The web is tightly controlled, and while the country did just add an uncensored 3G mobile network, it’s only for foreign visitors. Plus, buying even a basic mobile in North Korea is pretty expensive.

So North Korea still doesn’t really enjoy the free information exchange that comes along with internet connectivity in other countries. At least, North Koreans don’t enjoy that on the internet. They do, as this wonderful and fascinating article points out, have their own sort of ‘internet,’ though, and it’s trains. From NK News:

In the trains used by ordinary North Koreans for travel, it is so crowded that even the toilets are full of people and luggage. Standing shoulder to shoulder hours at a time for a journey of several days, the atmosphere can get intense. Yet it is in this pressured environment that criticism of the regime can spill out of the mouths of ordinary citizens. North Korean refugee Ju-haeng*, 43 years of age, told us, “North Korean trains are chaotic inside, but in the train compartments we can hear news about the outside world and even complain about our leaders.”

Complaining about leaders; yes, that certainly sounds like the internet. But what about the lulz of social networking sites on the world wide web; do North Korean trains offer that, too? Apparently they do:

In a gathering of people, there may sometimes be a clown. North Korean refugees say that jokes cracked in a train tend to revolve around mocking the behaviour of officials and letting off steam about problems in society. North Korean refugee Young-jin*, 39 years of age, told us, “On the train, the usual hierarchies that are observed in the workplace and in social settings don’t apply for some reason. Many feel comfortable cracking jokes that they wouldn’t dare in another setting. Maybe feeling more comfortable among strangers is a Korean thing. That is why we can be ourselves on the train. Moreover, we know we won’t see any of these people again – that certainly helps us let our guards down.”

Of course, you can’t always hop on a train quite the way you would the web, so information is also frequently passed via mobile phone from person-to-person. This may sound backwards to some of our readers, but really, these are just social networks from the pre-social-networking era; i.e., social networks that are actually social.

While I should make it very clear I’m no North Korea expert, it also seems to me that the fact that people are willing to joke and share information with strangers on trains means that if internet connectivity broadens or the mobile internet is finally introduced to North Korea, the right sort of social network could really take off there. How such a network could be safe to use while still being permitted by the North Korean government I’m not sure. But there’s clearly a desire to exchange information, so when there are internet connections everywhere (which may still be a long way away), I have a feeling that some enterprising folks will take a stab at bringing North Korea’s train-car social networks online.

(via NK News)

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