Though North Korea boasts some trappings of technological modernity — a nuclear weapons program, its own internet, smartphones, and tablets — it’s rare to see traces of Silicon Valley in one of the most closed-off countries in the world. So, when stories about the escalating tensions between the Trump administration and North Korea cropped up last week, one widely used image stood out.
The photo depicts a visitor leaning over the banister at Pyongyang’s Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, looking out at a model of the Unha 3 Space Launch vehicle in a space-themed hall. The image has the grand sterility that marks most pictures out of North Korea: the colossal mural, the sparkling clean banister, the eerie sense of emptiness. But there, in the corner of the room, to the left of the rocket and behind what seems to be an informational placard, is something curious: a figure that closely resembles Google’s stocky Android mascot, unofficially known as the Bugdroid.
What is the mascot of one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful corporations doing in a North Korean government facility?
It’s unclear when the droid was installed at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, which was established in 1989 as an arts and performance center and hosts 12,000 pupils every day. That photo of the man and the missile is an AP photograph and was taken just a few days ago, on April 14th, 2017.
But that wasn’t the first time the North Korean Bugdroid was captured. The character is also visible in a photograph published by the Los Angeles Times in May 2016 in conjunction with a reporter’s visit. In this earlier photo it’s clear that the Bugdroid is reflective, just like the curved mirrors above it.
Western brand knockoffs are widespread in North Korea: the country has staged Walt Disney productions, launched a Netflix clone called Manbang, and produced a Coca-Cola copycat called Cocoa — a “crabonated drink.”
The country is not unfamiliar with Google. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt made a secretive trip to Pyongyang in January 2013; later that year, North Korea announced the Arirang smartphone, powered by Android. Since 2014, the Pyongyang Informatics Company has been selling Android tablets under the brand Ullim.
Still, it’s unclear how the Bugdroid entered North Korea’s visual lexicon — Android-powered devices are disguised in North Korean exteriors, and access to products from outside the country is highly restricted. It’s possible, but unlikely, that a designer saw the logo using North Korea’s internet — reports last fall indicate that the internet there is made up of only 28 websites. Melissa Hanham, who scrutinizes videos and photos from North Korea for her work at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote in an email that she hadn’t seen the Bugdroid in any other images from the country.
“It's interesting to consider where they might have seen it, with little or no internet access,” Martyn Williams, a North Korean analyst who runs the blog North Korea Tech, wrote in an email. One possibility may be phones illegally smuggled from China — which would make the mirror droid’s placement in a government facility that much more ironic. Williams also said that he hadn’t seen the image used anywhere else, and that the government’s use of the image probably didn’t have much significance. In all likelihood, he wrote, the “designers just saw it and thought it was cute.”
But he did feel that the likeness was too similar to be a coincidence.
I reached out to graphic designer Irina Blok, who was tasked with creating a mascot for Android in 2007. Blok took inspiration from the simple figures used to designate men’s and women’s bathrooms for her design of the Bugdroid. From its inception, the mascot was designed to be open source, free for anyone to iterate off of. “We decided it would be a collaborative logo that everybody in the world could customize,” she told The New York Times in 2013. The little robot was an instant hit.
"The next thing I knew, there were all kinds of robots,” Blok later said in an interview. “There was one that was a little kitty, there was one that looked like Sarah Palin. They were like multiplying everywhere."
I asked Blok whether she was surprised to see that her robot had multiplied right into North Korea, popping up in a communist pedagogical institute. She didn’t seem bothered by it.
“I hope they focus more on cute mascots than missiles and bombs,” she replied.