North Korea and the Nature of Democracy

Kim Jong-un - North Korea - InternetLast week at the website I edit for, we published, Everything We Know About North Korea’s Bizarre Internet. It was written by Claire Broadley who is kind of the co-editor with me of the blog at It’s one of the best things we’ve done. In one way, it is hilarious. In another, it is extremely sad. Even though it is about the internet and technology, it provides a great insight into North Korea itself.

My favorite part of it is, “On the majority of North Korean websites, the names of all three Supreme Leaders are displayed larger than the text that surrounds them.” This is actually what led me to add “bizarre” to the title of the article. To give you some idea of this, consider the Kim Il-Sung University. Since “Kim Il-Sung” is one of the supreme leaders, the name is in a larger font. So when “Kim Il-Sung University” is written, it doesn’t come off as a single unit. It’s silly.

Pettiness of Authoritarians

I was so interested in this that I went looking through their HTML and CSS. What I found was that every time “Kim Il-Sung” was mentioned, it was put inside a “span” tag with the class “august.” The “august” class was then defined in the CSS file to be bold and 10 percent larger than the text it was around. It was fun to find this out. But it’s pathetic for three reasons:

  1. Those in power are so insecure that they must deify their current and previous leaders.
  2. They used the word “august.”
  3. It was hand coded so it had to be put in the HTML every time one of the names was mentioned.

But this is hardly surprising. This is the nature of authoritarians. And you don’t even have to go to that level. Look at the state of the aristocracy in England two hundred years ago. Or even the way people treat the royal family today. Or remember when Wall Street banks got their feelings all hurt when Obama talked about “fat cat bankers”? Entitled people are amazingly petty.

It’s hard not to see this all in the context of the recent American presidential election. He seems genuinely ignorant of what a president is. He seems to imagine that he’s going to be Supreme Leader.

What was so sad preparing the article on the North Korean internet is thinking about the millions of people who all have horrible lives just so that one man can feel like he is a god. And it’s all for nothing. Kim Jong-un isn’t the supreme leader of North Korea because he keeps most of the country living near starvation; he’s leader because China backs him. Without China, he would be executed and that would be the end of it.

North Korea vs America

The irony is, of course, that if he allowed as much freedom as the Chinese despots do, not only would the people of North Korea be better off, so would Kim Jong-un. Or he would be in all but one way: he wouldn’t be allowed the delusion that he is a god. He would just be an incredibly powerful man with more money than anyone could ever spend.

It’s hard not to see this all in the context of the recent American presidential election. The president-elect ran for office because he already had everything else. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s so dangerous. He seems genuinely ignorant of what a president is. He seems to imagine that he’s going to be Supreme Leader. And during my life, I’ve seen one political norm after another fall. So in addition to the Republicans getting all that they want — stripping away much of what is left of the New Deal and the Great Society — we will take another giant step toward kleptocracy.

Democracy is about a lot more than voting. In the coming years, we will see just how how much different we are from North Korea.


I highly recommend reading the whole article, Everything We Know About North Korea’s Bizarre Internet. I’ve barely touched on it. The article is fascinating — and probably the best work any of us has done over at

12 thoughts on “North Korea and the Nature of Democracy

  1. I started getting confused half way through. I really don’t know much about the internet. But I do know enough to order certain books.

    • It’s written for people who are very technically minded. But there are some staggering factoids that everyone should understand like IBM having 16,000 times as many IP addresses as the whole country of North Korea.

      • After reading that book I got about the woman who escaped from North Korea…I wasn’t surprised. I was just sad.

        • Yeah, I was aware too. But there was something special dealing with it day after day. North Korea is so retrograde. Modern totalitarian states have evolved, but they haven’t. It’s right out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  2. Wow, you work for WIHT! Earlier this year, I received 3 emails from 3 different people at WIHT with the old “you’ve got a broken link on your website, why don’t you try this link to ours?” messages. (I assume this is done by search-engine optimization employees/consultants.) Usually I just correct my links and ignore the suggested links, but the WIHT links to their programming language pages I actually found useful so I added them to my website. (And the pages are directly or indirectly accessible from WIHT’s home page–important to me. I get a lot of emails suggesting, for example, standalone health-related pages on unrelated corporate websites.)

    The North Korea internet was interesting. Is it fair to mention the big chunk of IPV4 space allocated to IBM? My memory is hazy … in the beginning, when it was mainly universities and major computer companies on the internet, IBM and others were allocated large chunks, but things changed as the internet grew and the folks in charge gained experience with allocating IPV4 address ranges to large numbers of domains. In this blog post, are you sure the HTML was really hand coded? Or were you just seeing the “flat file” resulting from preprocessing/page-generation? Just technical quibbles. Again, the North Korea article was very interesting and the blog post’s drawing of parallels with our current political situation was well-done.

    • Thanks. That’s my favorite part of the site. I get the same kinds of email offers but they are usually from sleazy companies that have just stolen someone else’s content and put it up on their site. The last one was an AP article some law firm put up on its own site (without even attribution). We work very hard to provide quality content. And it can be hard. It’s also hard to find people who can both write and can understand the material. My favorite article is on INTERCAL — one I wanted to write but just didn’t have the time. (I never have the time anymore.)

      IBM still has that /8 block, which they did indeed get in the early days. The reason I brought it up was that I wasn’t sure that people would really understand just how pathetic a country only having 750 IPv4 addresses is. Of course, with IPv6, I don’t worry too much.

      As for the hand coding: I don’t know for sure. But look at the code: it’s beautiful. It looks hard-written. Now certainly a program could be made to do that. But usually not. People make nice looking code because they have to look at it. Otherwise, they make efficient code. But it is open to debate.

    • ‘Hand coded’ is probably an inaccurate phrase, you’re right.

      I was trying to imply that the class was added to every instance of the Supreme Leaders’ names, wherever they appear on a North Korean website. So at some level, one would assume there is a manual process of adding that class.

      It’s possible that there is a piece of software automating it. But given that most North Korean websites are unsophisticated, I don’t see how this would be achievable. You would need a plugin or extension for every website.

      As with most North Korean ‘facts’, the author has to use a certain amount of educated guesswork and come to a conclusion. Just like the Dyn staff speculate that someone in an office probably turned the router on and off every few days.

      • Was that statement made in your article. I thought that was a claim that I made here. Regardless, you are right. Looking at the code takes me back to the late 1990s when CSS was new.

  3. It sounds very like the information bubble conservative politicians want voters here to be stuck in. Don’t think there’s any other way of looking at the world, any other version of reality. Flip side, as Neil Degrasse Tyson put it on Colbert’s show, “we need to make America smart again.” Amen! And, hallelujah… :(

    Most other guys on late-night comedy wimped out, saying we should “come together and be less divisive.” Not the old “Daily Show” band. Samantha Bee’s gearing up for battle. So’s Oliver. Sounds like Colbert is, too. (Larry Wilmore had great cameo appearances in taped bits on both Bee & Oliver. Larry, we need you! In Oliver’s piece, my favorite part was Wilmore looking badass in his leather jacket and telling the camera, FUCK 2016!)

    • That’s just it: it doesn’t matter how the Republicans act, it becomes normalized. Now things are the same as they they were in 2000, only starting at a much lower level.

    • That’s cool. DuckDuckGo is getting a lot of converts recently as Google adds more and more ads to its search results. Soon you are going to have to get to the 12th page before you get natural results.

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