October 9, 2017
A little over a week ago, one of Russia’s largest telecommunications companies appears to have provided an important alternative internet connection for North Korea.
News broke early on October 1st that some of the internet traffic emanating from North Korea had begun appearing tagged as routed via TransTelecom, or TTK.
TTK is a major telecom provider in Russia. It is also a subsidiary of the Russian railway provider, which fits in logically because the telecom lines are laid in place on the side of the railroad tracks.
According to TTK’s website, those railroad tracks include a route that runs from Vladivostok to the North Korean border.
An image capture from that site is shown at left, with an arrow showing where the link from Russia's TTK to the North Korean border likely was installed.
This now provides Pyongyang with an important second major internet connection to the outside world.
This is significant because, in the face of harsh economic sanctions and major international pressure, North Korea had been restricted to only one major global internet connection for most of the past 7 years. That connection was provided by China Unicom, and channeled internet traffic via North Korean ISP Star JV since 2010.
There was a short period of time, for around a year starting in 2012, when international telecom provider Intelsat had provided a second link to North Korea. That service was rapidly discontinued.
The timing of the new connection is also interesting. According to a story in the Washington Post that was published on September 30, the United States Cyber Command had been engaged in a major denial-of-service (DNS) attack against North Korean hackers connected with the Reconnaissance General Bureau. DNS attacks are designed to tie up computing power and internet connections, bringing transmission speeds to a crawl. This particular set of attacks was reportedly going to stop late on September 30, according to the latest news report.
The new Russian-North Korea telecommunications connection went live shortly after the latest of those cyberattacks was supposed to have eased.
The new internet connection is therefore very timely, for several reasons. Besides the likely total non-coincidence that it went into place at the lull in the cyber battle, having any second connection provides Pyongyang with an important and higher-speed alternative to the previous single-point older China Unicom link, if the U.S. is successful at shutting down the Chinese channel. It also provides an important strategic partner to play against China as it attempts to navigate increasing rocky relations with the rest of the world.
The discovery of the new Russia-North Korea internet connection came quietly. It was discovered by multiple sources early on October 1st, as part of information on internet routing links coming from North Korea. Dyn Research, a Hampton, Virginia based company that studies global internet connectivity – among other things – was one of the first to break the news about North Korea’s new hookup.
When that news broke, Russia’s TransTeleCom, it did not deny providing North Korea with its new internet alternative. The company instead issued a statement which said the following: “TransTeleCom (TTK) has historically had a connection to the communication network of North Korea under the agreement with Korea Posts and Telecommunications Corp, which was signed in 2009.” The internet connection itself is likely far more important to the Pyongyang government both symbolically and as a potential weapon, and less so for any commercial use. Because of the poor economic state of the North Korea, as well as because the government has little interest in having the public have any more information than possible about what may be happening beyond its borders, there are very few internet users anywhere in the country. The networks are, however, provided to government departments, major companies, large universities and for foreigners to access using smartphones.
It is currently unclear what the repercussions might be for what many see is as a move by Russia to violate current UN sanctions agreements against North Korea. It is clear the US will be studying the new connection closely and attempting to determine how to disrupt this new internet source as quickly as possible.