North Korea launches the "Manbang". For once it's not a missile

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Aug 24, 2016

via Flickr © (stephan) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © (stephan) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • It's a set-top box providing Video-on-Demand!
  • And "Socialism's equivalent of Netflix" - apparently
  • Except that it's nothing of the sort
  • The service already has "several hundred" users. North Korea's population is 25 million

The calendar says its late August but thanks to a bit of Silly Season time-slip one story appears to have winged it into the editorial cubbyhole direct from April 1 in a year that could be either in the past or in the future. Who know's? After all it's from North Korea. The country's state broadcaster KCTV, (there is no other) has launched the "Manbang", (I know, I know…). It's a set-top box that apparently offers video-on-demand services. It is being trumpeted as "Socialism's equivalent of Netflix". It is, of course, nothing of the sort.

To begin with the vast majority of the North Korean population has absolutely no form of broadband connectivity - or narrowband connectivity either come to that. Last year the World Bank published research showing that the number of Internet servers per million head of population in North Korea was zero, as in zip, nada and bugger-all. The global average (including the world's poorest developing economies except North Korea) is 209. South Korea meanwhile has at least 2,320 secure servers per million people.

KCTV says that 'Manbang' means "everything everywhere". Now, where have we heard that before? Oh, yes, I remember now. It's what the UK's mobile operator EE used to call itself before it belatedly and grudgingly had to admit that its services were anything but everything everywhere and the ludicrous name was making the company a laughing stock.

No danger of that in North Korea. Make a crack about 'Manbang' there and you'll be tied to a post and be obliterated by having a howitzer shell fired at you. Either that or you'll be hurled naked into a pit of starving dogs. Perhaps they could call the ensuing on-demand programme "Saturday Night Live - and Dead".

Apparently five difference channels will be available although the content will be more or less identical, and identically boring, on each one of the five. It will be available in three North Korean cities, including the capital Pyongyang where a few hundred favoured party apparatchiks (out of a total North Korean population of 25 million) will be able to savour the delights of watching hagiographic documentaries about Juche ideology (which is the equivalent of a state religion) and the demi-gods of the ruling Kim dynasty.

For a bit of light relief they will also watch readings from the daily propaganda sheets, well known for their funny pages and satiric comments. They'll also be able to brush up their English and Russian skills via a series of language-learning programmes. Not that the'll be allowed out of the worker's paradise to practice 'in-country', as it were.

Neither fish nor fowl

The KCTV says it is providing on-demand streamed TV service via the country's massively controlled and policed national intranet. In essence it is a sort of VOD via a quasi-IPTV offering.  According to a statement from state television, the set-top box box allows viewers to search for programmes by typing in the title, or by browsing through categories.

Now, there's quite a difference between IPTV and VOD, which would seem to be the two technologies described in the KCTV report. Usually, IPTV means the streaming over-the-ether of conventional terrestrial, satellite or cable TV channel in real-time, which basically means someone can watch something like a news broadcast or some such programming over an Internet connection - and there aren't many of them in North Korea. On the other hand, VOD allows an end user to choose what they want to see. However, the notion of 'choice' is not high on the agenda for the average North Korean citizen.

Kim Jong Min, the head honcho of KCTV's information technology department, says “The information and communications (IOT) technology is based upon two-way communications. So, if a viewer wants to watch, for instance, an animal movie and sends a request to the equipment, it will show the relevant video to the viewer…this is two-way communications,” Ah, that clears it up then.

And, you'll be pleased to know, the Manbang is a doddle to use . Here are the instructions: “Firstly, connect a phone line to the high-speed modem, and then connect a cable box to the national network, then connect connect a High-Definition Multimedia Interface port of a cable box to the television, plug in and turn on - and that's it". However, the instructions do not explain where to obtain any of those items, all of which, even if they were available, would be far beyond the annual purchasing power of 99.99 per cent of ordinary North Koreans.

KCTV says the new service, for which there already "several hundred users" is "making the lives of citizens and children flourish" - as only a hectoring and over-amplified lecture on the merits of the Sonbong Textile Factory, the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory and Tae‘an Heavy Machine Tool Complex can. Enjoy!

And don't forget the North Korean Facebook clone?

Back in late May, Doug Madory, a security expert at Dyn Inc, (it's pronounced "dine" by the way) a cloud-based Internet performance management company headquartered in Manchester, New Hampshire in the US, discovered that the North Korean government (for it could nothing other than that) had created a crude facsimile of Facebook. Doug Madory said, "It is North Korean. Very few websites resolve to the North Korean address space, and this one does.”

At the time the hidden site was functional but had only a handful of users, presumably the computer scientists who were constructing it. The social networking site had a newsfeed, 'likes', and messaging service and Madory was able sent several messages back and forth and even upload a profile photo. North Korea banned the real Facebook (along with YouTube and Twitter) back in the Spring of 2015.

The network was evidently meant solely for some sort of usage within the borders of North Korea itself, but, once the site had been discovered, some naughty people outside the country set up spoof profiles, including one of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. To take the mickey out of a deity in that way is the heresy of all heresies and the site was taken down and disappeared a few hours later. What happened to the unfortunate developers is not known, but it won't have been pleasant.

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