North Korea’s software self reliance

Governments in both the US and Europe have made conspicuous declarations of their commitment to open source software, keen to associate themselves with its alternative yet low-cost image.

But hermit state North Korea appears to have stolen a march on its Western counterparts, by adopting open source software as a symbol of its state-endorsed ideological dogma Juche, which literally translate as "the spirit of self-reliance".

In March 2010, a Russian student at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University, discovered a government-developed distribution of the Linux operating system, known as 'Red Star', being sold at local stores for approximately $5.

Upon opening Red Star's readme file, 'Mikhail' wrote on his personal blog, the user is greeted with a personal message from leader Kim Jong-il describing the importance to North Korea of developing its own OS from the Linux kernel. The distribution, which is said to take about 15 minutes to install and aesthetically bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft's Windows software, is apparently still in stages of beta testing, but appeared stable.

Mikhail noted on his blog that the exclusively Korean-language Red Star comes pre-installed with a number of applications: an email client called 'Pigeon', anti-virus software known as 'Woodpecker' and a firewall named 'Pyongyang Fortress' – in reference to North Korea's secretive central metropolis.

The Linux distribution also includes a version of the Firefox web browser, although quite why is not clear, as web access is almost non-existent for the country's population of 24 million.

As it happens, Linux has in the past served as a point of reconciliation between the estranged Korean nations, separated along the demilitarised 38th parallel since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In 2008, despite the North and South still technically being at war, both governments agreed to work on a joint Linux distribution known as One Linux, although there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the project was fruitful.

The government of Cuba, one of the few countries not to have severed its diplomatic relations with North Korea, also launched its own variant of a Linux OS called Nova last year. It was described at the time as a bid to preserve the state's 'technological sovereignty' in the face of an increasing presence of Microsoft's Windows operating system on the Caribbean island's IT infrastructure.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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