Published April 19, 2012
Robert Westmore of Southern California designs websites for a living -- but he was shocked to learn that he had designed a new homepage for the reclusive North Korean regime.
“I had no idea,” he told FoxNews.com in an interview. “Honestly, I didn't even know North Korea had a website.”
While the notorious totalitarian government continues to spend hundreds of millions on failed rocket launches, North Korea skimps in other areas, notably web design. Indeed the country spent just $15 redesigning its national homepage, korea-dpr.com -- a fact accidentally discovered by an unsuspecting college student.
Fordham junior Michael DiTanna was working on a class project about Korean propaganda when he noticed the country's "flashy" new redesign, which DiTanna estimates to be only a few months old. A computer science major, DiTanna quickly realized the site was based on Westmore's $15 Blender template.
"Right away I saw that the site was produced through a purchased theme," DiTanna told FoxNews.com. "They just did a really sloppy job of cleaning up the source code," he added, leaving clues to the site's origin.
Since 2000, the site has served as the officially sanctioned face of North Korea to the outside world. It was built by Cho Son-il, who told FoxNews.com he is an honorary citizen and an authorized North Korean spokesman. The site claims to receive an average of 12 million hits per month.
Son-il built the site, he said -- along the way paying that $15 to Robert Westmore, a freelance web designer from the West Coast who had posted the template for general consumption on ThemeForest.com, an online exchange where designers can show off their wares.
Such templates are primarily intended for personal blogs on WordPress or Blogger -- not for government or international regimes.
For Westmore, who ditched a senior web designer gig at an advertising agency three years ago to freelance full time, any publicity is good publicity.
“As a web designer I'm always happy to see my work getting utilized,” Westmore, who spent several months of development on the theme, told FoxNews.com. “Especially when it's on a high-profile website.”
It might seem strange that a country Former President George W. Bush lumped into the Axis of Evil would consider the work of a young Californian for the country’s Internet initiative, but North Korea has never been known for its technological savvy.
As it turns out, budget limitations may have forced the country's hand.
Cho Son-il, otherwise known as Alejandro Cao de benos de Les Perez, is an honorary citizen, authorized North Korean spokesman, and the first and only foreigner in history to work for the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). He helped launch the nation’s first website back in 2000, “with the authorization of our Minister and Vice-Minister of the DPRK Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries,” Son-il told FoxNews.com.
North Korea, a country infamous for its strict censorship policies and propaganda programs, created the site not for its own citizens -- who mostly lack Internet access -- but "for the people outside DPRK, to have basic information and a direct connection point with the country," Son-il said.
One of his objectives was to boost the search ranking of the DPRK’s official homepage -- on a measly budget of around $100 a month.
“In the year 2000, there was not a single site about the DPRK with information from the DPRK. The first sites given by a Yahoo search were the CIA Factbook or the South Korean government," Son-il told FoxNews.com. “But now we are positioned among the first in most search engines even though our initial budget was just 80 euros per month.”
Did the $15 redesign swallow up 15 percent of his budget? Son-il did not return FoxNews.com questions about the current budget for the site -- which Wired.com suggested had an "amateurish look."
If North Korea is seeking further assistance developing its site, Westmore did have a few suggestions for how Pyongyang might achieve a more “professional” look.
“The dark theme they chose and the color scheme is a tad ominous looking,” Westmore told FoxNews.com. “It’s great for certain industries, but for a government website, not so much.”
“Perhaps they would be interested in one of my other lighter, airy themes,” he said.
Calls and emails to the North Korean Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and the official embassy in Washington, D.C., went unanswered.