US pushes North Korea on Twitter freedom

State Department wonders if North Koreans will be allowed to see Pyongyang tweets

The U.S. government has welcomed North Korea's jump onto Twitter and challenged the country to let its citizens see the recently created account.

"We use Twitter to connect, to inform, and to debate. We welcome North Korea to Twitter and the networked world," wrote Philip Crowley, a state department spokesman on his Twitter account.

The message came days after Uriminzokkiri, the closest thing the insular country has to an official Web site, established a Twitter account. The account has to date posted messages only in Korean but that hasn't stopped it becoming somewhat of a Twitter hit. Publicity from the launch has resulted in over 5,000 followers subscribing to the slow stream of government propaganda.

"The North Korean government has joined Twitter, but is it prepared to allow its citizens to be connected as well?," asked Crowley on his Twitter account.

North Korea is one of the world's most tightly controlled societies and Internet access is restricted to all but the most trusted members of government. Some people have access to a nationwide intranet, a closed network based on Internet technology that offers domestic Web sites and e-mail with no links to the outside world.

In recent years the country has taken steps to introduce modern communications technologies, but has typically done so cautiously. Residents of Pyongyang and several other cities can now subscribe to a mobile phone network, but direct dialling to overseas numbers isn't available and calls between citizens and foreign residents are also restricted.

"The Hermit Kingdom will not change overnight, but technology once introduced can't be shut down. Just ask Iran," said Crowley in the final of three Twitter messages on the subject.

It's likely that the experience of countries like Iran is causing North Korea to be cautious in the freedoms it allows citizens with technology. The Internet and mobile phones reportedly played an important part in the organization of anti-government rallies in Iran in 2009.

Crowley's comments come in the same week a court in South Korea, the North's democratic southern neighbor, sentenced a man for posting material online that was sympathetic to North Korea.

The man, who was only identified in news reports as Lee, received a two-year prison sentence, suspended for three years, on Monday for posting pro-North Korean material on a blog, reported South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Lee fell foul of the country's National Security Law, which prohibits the distribution of materials that praise the North, by posting links to other sites that hosted the material, said The Korea Times.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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