A U.S.-based research group on North Korea says a Russian state-owned Internet company has started providing Pyongyang an alternate connection to the global Internet.
The new connection comes as the United States is reportedly trying to isolate North Korea's connectivity to the world amid mounting concerns over its nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea's primary Internet connections flows through its closest ally, China. That has given the secretive regime access to information, but also allowed it to conduct cyberespionage and cyberwarfare. U.S. intelligence blamed the 2014 hack of the Sony Pictures film studio on North Korean hackers.
According to a report by 38 North, an organization housed at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, a Russian Internet company called TransTeleCom began handling North Korean traffic beginning early on October 1.
The report said that since that time the TransTeleCom traffic had surpassed the existing Chinese connection, which has been in place since 2010.
One of Russia's biggest telecom companies, TransTeleCom is owned by Russian Railways, the massive state-owned rail operator whose top executives are traditionally close to the Kremlin. Russian Railways' former CEO is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin.
TransTeleCom did not immediately respond to a query from RFE/RL, but a spokesman told Reuters news agency that the company "historically had a junction of trunk networks with North Korea under an agreement with Korea Posts and Telecommunications Corp. signed in 2009."
The timing of the new Internet connection has raised eyebrows among researchers.
The Washington Post reported on September 30, a day before the new Russian connection went operational, that U.S. Cyber Command -- one of the U.S. government's main military cyberoperations -- had been targeting hackers at North Korea's military spy agency, flooding its servers with a denial-of-service attack.
Like past U.S. administrations, President Donald Trump has struggled to rein in North Korea's accelerating nuclear programs, with the leaders of the two countries regularly exchanging insults and belligerent accusations.
The Soviet Union was one of North Korea's staunchest allies and economic supporters, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un was trained by Soviet military instructors. But after the Soviet collapse, ties between Moscow and Pyongyang withered.