A look inside N. Korea's Red Star OS

SINGAPORE/SEOUL • The home-grown computer operating system in North Korea mirrors its political one, according to two German researchers who have delved into the code: a go-it-alone approach, a high degree of paranoia and invasive snooping on users.

Their research, the deepest yet into the secretive state's Red Star OS, illustrates the challenges Pyongyang faces in trying to embrace the benefits of computing and the Internet while keeping a tight grip on ideas and culture.

The researchers, Mr Florian Grunow and Mr Niklaus Schiess of German IT security company ERNW GmbH, spoke to Reuters before presenting their findings to the Chaos Communication Congress, a gathering of hackers and security researchers, in Hamburg on Sunday.

The operating system is not just a pale copy of western ones that many have assumed, they concluded after downloading the software from a website outside North Korea and exploring the code in detail.

"(Late leader) Kim Jong Il said North Korea should develop a system of their own," said Mr Grunow. "This is what they've done."

North Korea, which has a rudimentary intranet system that does not connect to the outside Internet but allows access to state media and some officially approved websites, has been developing its own operating system for more than a decade.

This latest version, written around 2013, is based on a version of Linux called Fedora and has eschewed the previous version's Windows XP feel for Apple's OSX - perhaps a nod to leader Kim Jong Un, who, like his father, has been photographed near Mac computers.

But under the hood, there is a lot that is unique, including its own type of file encryption.

"This is a full-blown operation system where they control most of the code," said Mr Grunow.

This, the researchers said, suggests that North Korea wants to avoid any code that might be compromised by intelligence agencies.

The researchers said they had no way of knowing how many computers were running the software. While private computer use is on the rise in North Korea, visitors to the country say most computers still use Windows XP, which is now nearly 15 years old.

The Red Star operating system makes it very hard for anyone to tamper with it. If a user makes any changes to core functions - such as trying to disable its anti-virus checker or firewall - the computer will display an error message, or reboot itself.

Red Star also addresses a more pressing concern: cracking down on the growing underground exchange of foreign movies, music and writing.

Illegal media is usually passed from person to person in North Korea using USB sticks and microSD cards, which makes it hard for the government to track where they come from.

Red Star tackles this by tagging, or watermarking, every document or media file on a computer or on any USB stick connected to it. That means that any file can be traced back to the person who had previously opened or created the file.

There is no sign in the operating system, the researchers said, of the kinds of cyber attack capability North Korea has been accused of. "It really looks like they've just tried to build an operating system for them, and to give the user a basic set of applications," Mr Grunow said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'A look inside N. Korea's Red Star OS'. Print Edition | Subscribe