Red Star Rising: A Peek into North Korea’s Bespoke OS

Red Star Rising: A Peek into North Korea’s Bespoke OS

Red Star OS

Two programmers at the 32nd Chaos Communications Conference have offered the rest of the world a look at the operating system that runs the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — otherwise known as the mysterious and suspicious North Korea.

North Korea has been closed to outside influences since the mid-20th century reign of Kim Il-Sung, and its continued existence depends heavily on propagandistic claims that, despite frequent famines and a violently repressive government, the country is better off than anywhere else. In order to keep this up, an operating system has had to be created that serves the regimes restrictive purposes, while acting spiffy enough to be appear competitive.

Dubbed Red Star OS, the system is Linux-based and superficially looks an awful lot like Mac OS 10 (the rumoured favourite of current leader Kim Jong-Un). Florian Grunow and Nicklaus Schiess take the 32C3 audience through an hour-long, totally fascinating analysis of the OS here. (There’s a shorter real-time that I found intriguing here, via BoingBoing.) Some of my favourite points include:

  • Red Star OS has a proprietary browser that only allows access to the state-approved intranet, so no user can ever access the larger, democratic internet and hear a dissenting voice — the 21st century equivalent of hardwiring citizens’ radios to a pre-set frequency.
  • The OS has no means of accessing root when it first ships, limiting casual users from going through the back end to make unauthorized changes. In the interest of appearing transparent though, there is an offered add-on that allows access to root — but of course, downloading it makes you known to the government.
  • It comes with a its own anti-virus program, but, instead of seeking out and destroying malware under its typical definition, it can be calibrated to identify and delete any unauthorized files or media the regime doesn’t want a user to have.

In short, Red Star OS is a spectacular demonstration of the lengths a regime will go to in order to limit and ultimately persecute its citizens, while maintaining the shiny propaganda façade of competitive computing. It makes me grateful that all my computer does to injure me is occasionally not recognize my printer…