Technology

Saturday 2 August 2014

North Korea computers get 'Apple' makeover

Published 06/02/2014|08:14

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Screenshot taken by Will Scott

The operating system created by the North Korean government for use by the minority of its citizens with access to a computer, Red Star OS, has been redesigned to look more like Apple’s Mac OS X.

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Red Star was written by the Korea Computer Center, the country's technology research hub, which has a staff of around 1,000 and offices in Germany, Syria, China and the United Arab Emirates. It manages the official web portal of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Naenara, as well as a state-approved search engine.

The development of an independent operating system speaks to North Korea’s political thesis of Juche, which praises independence and self-reliance, although Red Star is based upon Linux which was developed by volunteers around the world.

News of the existence of the operating system first reached the West in 2010 after a Russian student studying in Pyongyang bought a copy of version 2.0 on the street for around $5. Identified only as Mikhail, he later wrote about the software on his LiveJournal blog.

It was reported that the software uses a calendar which counts years from the birth of Kim Il-Sung, making 2014 the 103rd year. It is only available in Korean and the bundled Firefox browser has the North Korean government website as a default home page.

Now University of Washington computer science student Will Scott, who was lecturing at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology last year, has released screenshots of version 3.0, the most recent known to exist.

“It really does look Mac-like, and is using a skin that as far as I can tell is custom made rather than being modified from an existing Linux theme,” he wrote on his blog.

“Apps are packaged using a Mac-like folder structure as well, with ‘contents’ and ‘resources’ folders within the application folder.”

Although versions 2.0 and 3.0 of Red Star both use a modified version of the open source KDE interface, the older software had a very different look and feel more akin to other Linux distributions such as Debian. To run the current version of the OS a minimum of a Pentium III 800MHz with 256MB of RAM is required, along with 3GB of hard disk space.

Speaking in a Reddit AMA last month he spoke of his “lingering fear” after exploring the network at his host university.

“I'm a networking student so I was poking around to see how stuff was connected and was always on edge that it was going to get me in trouble”, he said.

“Our campus transferred information largely through USB sticks, and there were a lot of viruses going around on them. That to me indicates that the intelligence agencies probably have a pretty good idea of what's going on with the intranet despite the airgap.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been shown to be a fan of Apple computers in the past, having been pictured last year working at a desk on which an iMac was perched. As Apple complies with trade embargoes that forbid the sale of products to the country, the source of the computer became a talking point.

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