On October 1st, TransTeleCom began providing Internet connection to North Korea. What is interesting about this is that TransTeleCom is a major state-owned telecommunications company- from Russia.
The connection first appeared on routing databases around 5:38p.m. in Pyongyang time (which is not in line with how time is tracked by location, in its effort to “break from imperialism”). Prior to this, Internet connection was funneled through only one line: the route between North Korean ISP Star JV and a Unicorm link in China.
This marks a shift in North Korea’s cybersecurity capabilities. Bryce Boland, a cybersecurity expert, says that the new connection “will improve the resiliency of their network and increase their ability to conduct command and control over those activities.” With internet routes through two countries now, there is no single dependence on any one country, thus making North Korea even less likely to succumb to geo-political pressures.
Implications of this are great. Prior to this, the United Nations and the United States would only have to pressure China in the event that it decides to diplomatically cut North Korea off. Now, it has two countries, and the possibility of Russia agreeing to such an act, especially with the recent trends in Sino-American relations, is next to little to nothing. Furthermore, any attack on North Korea from the U.S. can now be seen as provocative move against Russia, thus escalating tensions.
The new connection comes in the midst of a number of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Such sanctions, based on a US-drafted resolution, are designed to achieve six objectives: cap the country’s oil imports, ban textile exports, end additional overseas laborer contracts, suppress smuggling efforts, stop joint ventures with other nations and sanction designated North Korean government entities.
Though Russia approved of the sanctions, the relationship between North Korea and Russia has thus far improved, a relation that could potentially threaten the status of the United States as the current global superpower. Bilateral trade between the two communist experiments have doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017 alone. Russian minister for the development of the Far East attributes this increase to higher oil product exports. A violation of the sanction on Russia’s part was seen again when eight North Korean ships left Russia with fuel cargoes returned to their home territory despite officially declaring other destinations.
This growing relationship between Russia and North Korea, now aided by a new connection over the Internet, is rooted in the common distaste of the global dominance of the United States. Both have imposed sanctions against them: Russia for its military actions in Ukraine and North Korea for its actions regarding nuclear power. To allow for the sanctions to have their intended effects would be to set a precedent for future sanctions imposed against Moscow.
Historically, the two countries have also had a close relationship. The U.S. State Department estimates approximately 20,000 North Koreans travel to Russia- sometimes, forcibly- each year to work for Russian companies. Since 1967, Russia has also hosted labor camps, reminiscent of their gulag system, generating a constant stream of cheap labor for domestic businesses. In addition to all of this, there are a number of North Korean-owned businesses scattered across Russia, such as restaurants, travel agencies (to attract Russian tourists to North Korea), and a passenger and cargo ferry service between Vladivostok, Russia and Rason, North Korea, which opened just this May.
But the relationship is not one-sided. In 2014, Russia forgave 90% of North Korea’s debt totaling $11 billion. As part of the agreement, what remains of the debt is to be paid by deposits into an account intended to grow Russian-North Korean ties and trade. To eschew Western scrutiny and sanctions, however, the agreement has the two countries operate in rubles.
The new channel to the Internet is just another way to strengthen North Korea for Russia, a method designed to counter what Putin sees as the oppressive U.S.-international system.