North Korea’s homegrown Red Star OS might be built atop Linux, but it’s no freedom-first operating system. In fact, it’s pretty much espionage software with an operating system slapped on top.
Red Star is meant to be a replacement for Windows XP, which remains a dominant OS in North Korea. Until recently, it actually looked almost exactly like Windows XP. Now, however, it’s been redesigned to mimic OS X — believed to be the favorite of both Kim Jong-un and his late father.
On the surface, it’s about minimizing the influence of outside forces. Underneath, however, it’s about keeping tabs on what North Korean citizens are doing on their computers. At this year’s installment of the Chaos Communication in Germany, IT security pros Florian Grunow and Niklaus Schiess took attendees on a deep dive into Red Star OS to see what it’s all about.
In a word: oppression. Red Star is indeed a real operating system, and it comes with a bevy of pre-installed apps like a word processor and an incredibly useful web browser that allows users to access state-sanctioned intranet content. Behind the scenes, it’s hiding a complex file-tagging system that allows the state to monitor and trace any foreign media that citizens might sneak onto their computers. North Koreans typically file-swap using flash drives, so the traffic has been difficult for the government to monitor. Red Star changes that.
Red Star is also built to resist tampering. Should anyone get the urge to try turning off that file-tracking functionality, the OS will simply block the attempt, throw up a black error screen, or reboot.
Amazingly, it’s actually not all that difficult to change the system language from Korean to good ol’ US English. That seems quite odd, given that one of the main reasons Red Star exists is to remove any US influence from North Korea’s computers.