By Choi Sung, Professor of computer science at Namseoul University
Inter-Korean private-level cooperation in the IT sector had been very brisk, but it has significantly slowed down owing to political issues. In particular, inter-Korean exchanges in the IT sector, which is deemed the least political, are believed to have bigger knock-on effects than those in any other sector.
North Korea is well aware that the IT industry would take centre stage in its endeavor to build a strong, prosperous nation, and has shown a high degree of cooperation with the South in this sector. In other words, the North believes that resource-hungry nations can stand on their own with the help of high value-added IT industries.
The promotion of the IT industry can be done in a way that could minimize the extent of market opening, so it is indeed a suitable industry for the North to build. In addition, the North recognizes that computers are indispensible to the North surviving in an era of knowledge and information and are a must in achieving economic growth.
The reason why the North wants inter-Korean collaboration in the IT sector is because it has acknowledged the capability of the South's IT production base. South Korea can benefit from this as well: it can take advantage of the North's cheap, but highly skilled IT talent to develop software in relatively advanced areas. On the other hand, the North expects that inter-Korean IT cooperation would translate into the North's acquisition of much-needed IT technologies and foreign capital inflows. Moreover, the backing of the North's top-ranking officials has played a great role. They seem to have reached to a conclusion that the promotion of the IT industry is crucial to the rebuilding of the North Korean economy, and collaboration with the South is vital in this endeavor.
The number of science and technology institutions in North Korea is estimated to hover around 300; about 200 institutions have been officially confirmed. Therefore, the North is unable to focus on building the hardware industry, which requires massive capital input and long-term investment, and is left with no choice, but to be keen on nurturing IT talent geared toward software development. As a result, the North has been producing excellent IT human resources in areas like artificial intelligence, needed for controlling man-made satellites and developing arms systems, and programming languages.
The following IT institutions are in charge of fostering the North's software industry: DPRK Academy of Sciences Korea Computer Center (KCC), Pyongyang Information Center (PIC) and Silver Star, which is currently under the KCC.
In particular, the creation of the PIC, modeled on the Osaka Information Center (OIC) at Osaka University of economics and law, was funded by Jochongnyeon, the pro-North Korean residents' league in Japan, and was technologically supported by the UNDP. The Jochongnyeon-financed KCC has been responsible for program development and distribution; research on electronic data processing; and nurturing IT talent.
Thanks to such efforts, nearly 200,000 IT talents were fostered and about 10,000 IT professionals are currently working in the field. Approximately 100 universities such as Kim Il-sung University, Pyongyang University of Computer Technology and Kim Chaek University of Technology (KUT) - and 120 colleges have produced 10,000 IT human resources every year. At the moment, the number of IT companies in the North is a mere 250, while the South has suffered from a surplus of IT talent. Therefore, inter-Korean IT cooperation is of great importance to the two Koreas.
As aforementioned, the North has set its sights on promoting its software industry, which is less capital-intensive compared to the hardware industry. Above all, the North is getting closer to obtaining world-class technologies in areas such as voice, fingerprint recognition, cryptography, animation, computer-aided design (CAD) and virtual reality. However, the North's lack of efficient software development processes and organized engineering systems remains a large obstacle to executing projects aimed at developing demand technology that the S. Korean industry wants. What is more, as the North lacks experiences in carrying out large-scale projects, doing documentation work in the process of development, and smoothing out technology transfer, much needs to be done to measure up to S. Korean companies' expectations.
Thus, the North needs to build a system for practical on-the-job IT training that produces IT talent capable of developing demand technology- which S. Korean companies need. In addition, it is urgent for both Koreas to come up with an IT talent certification system that certifies both Koreas' IT professionals.