Inside the dangerous operation to smuggle free information into North Korea
In most of the Wi-Fi-enabled world, thumb drives are already a throwback; the latest Apple laptops don't even come with a way to plug them in. But in the insular and rogue state of North Korea, USB drives have become a symbol of resistance.
Human rights groups based in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere load the flash drives with hours of foreign films like Titanic and TV shows like Friends, along with South Korean dramas and religious texts. Then they smuggle them north using drones, helium balloons or a secretive underground network.
The hope is that thousands, if not millions, of North Koreans will get their hands on foreign media on a scale so large it could someday undermine the same regime that's trying to brainwash them.
But in Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a land where people often turn to the black market to make money, watching a foreign film or reading an independent newspaper could bring terrible consequences. It could mean paying a bribe to an officer or spending time in one of the nation's many gulags — or, in some cases, even worse.
Joseph Park, who escaped North Korea at the age of 19, works as the research and development director at Seoul's North Korea Strategy Center, one of many groups delivering these USB drives or other devices.
It's a dangerous operation. Data smugglers, like the ones linked to Park's organization, risk torture at the hands of North Korean authorities.
According to Park, NKSC sent 10,000 to 20,000 USB drives to North Korea in 2016, though one mission didn't go so smoothly. A 43-year-old man delivering flash drives through the border for NKSC was detained for three months in the DPRK. He was beaten and released only after his family and friends sent about $5,000 in bribes.
In a handwritten letter sent to NKSC and translated by Mic, the smuggler explained how he was caught: He had distributed about 500 flash drives to people he came to know personally in North Korea, despite instructions to spread them across marketplaces only at night and take pictures of people buying or receiving them during the day.
"They inflicted physical beatings and deprived me of sleep. It was hard to tolerate such torture. … For the first time in my life, I started to pray every day," the man wrote. "I believe that North Korea will be liberated someday and, as a Korean, I want to do my part in the liberation."
Despite such dangers, however, NKSC and other groups have no intention of stopping. "Information is a basic human right," Park said through an interpreter in the conference room of his high-rise office.
"They inflicted physical beatings and deprived me of sleep. … I believe that North Korea will be liberated someday and, as a Korean, I want to do my part in the liberation."
The North Korean regime, currently headed by 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, is infamous for using propaganda and scare tactics to control its population. Efforts to counteract the government's lies date back to the Korean War era in the 1950s.
Jieun Baek's 2016 book, North Korea's Hidden Revolution, details how the U.S. and South Korean governments dropped leaflets into the north that urged Chinese and North Korean soldiers to defect during wartime. Even years after the 1953 ceasefire, the South Korean government deployed "massive amounts of freedom messages," along with toothbrushes, pens and other goods.
"These little mom-and-pop shops sending balloons over the border and supporting radio stations in North Korea — that's been happening for decades," Baek explained in a phone call. "Ideological warfare as a military strategy and a sort of social-liberal, value-spreading strategy has been around since basically biblical times."
The popularity of USB drives started to rise in the 2000s, when awareness campaigns popped up around the world, exposing North Korean propaganda and other atrocities committed by the DPRK's regime — including prison camps with at least 250,000 inmates.
"This idea of access to information being a human right, that really took off around the early 2010s," Baek said.
But support for smuggling programs has waned among major world governments, leaving activists and nonprofits alone in their efforts. Kang Cheol-hwan, the president of NKSC and a defector whose personal story is described in the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, argued that information dissemination is effective but lacks critical backing. He called the world's support for it "lukewarm."
"A lot of organizations like us are dependent on personal donations," Kang said. "The international community should understand what the North Korean government is most afraid of: a massive inflow of outside information to the people."
A man born with no future
At age 19, Park was about to embark on 12 years of compulsory military service — but, because of his family history, he would be barred from many opportunities in the Korean Worker's Party afterward.
"My grand-uncle went to South Korea during the Korean War, then went to Seattle and became a pastor in the 1960s," he said. "Because of that, my family was too low-class."
In the DPRK, the "songbun" caste system judges families based on their history and loyalty to the Kim regime.
Park says he hasn't spoken to his family since the day he left, when he told only his father about his plans to take a train to the border city of Onsong. Because the train was delayed for 15 days, Park said, passengers packed themselves in so tightly that his feet couldn't even touch the ground; others climbed onto the roof of the electric cable car, risking shock. Finally, Park made it to China and eventually to South Korea.
Now 34, Park spends his days working at NKSC, where he helps coordinate missions to send foreign media to those left behind in the DPRK, where millions of others suffer under extreme social control.
Cracking down on data smugglers
Free information faces additional obstacles once it reaches North Koreans. The North Korean government uses its technological know-how to deploy software that can hinder efforts to access foreign media.
Phones in North Korea are supposed to use a customized, Android-based mobile operating system and North Korea's mobile network. Experts believe that many phone users have been receiving automatic software updates for the last three or so years, and that these updates periodically integrate new countermeasures meant to surveil and censor citizens. One feature stops unauthorized files from being opened, for example.
Nat Kretchun, a researcher who worked on a nearly 100-page report describing the regime's efforts to curb outside information, said in a phone call that North Koreans were told to bring their phones to service centers around 2013 or 2014. For those who complied, there is likely no going back.
"All of the sudden, they had to [update their phones] and none of their files worked anymore," Kretchun said. "So you have to choose: Do I want my device to work as a cell phone, or a device meant for illegal media?"
Another program on state-authorized phones regularly generates screenshots of users' devices and saves them in an album that cannot be deleted or modified. North Koreans can see their own screenshots, but so can investigators looking for evidence of unauthorized media.
"They need a way for the North Korean police or secret agents [to] check what you're doing without much technical knowledge," Kretchun said. "It's designed so that it will aid this kind of North Korean human surveillance apparatus."
North Korean computer users are also obligated to use the regime's operation system, called Red Star OS. But according to Intermedia's report, many North Koreans don't download Red Star OS at all, since computers legally imported from China are often already equipped with Windows XP or Windows 7.
Those who comply with the regime's edicts can end up with buggy software that generally deletes unauthorized or foreign files on the device itself, plus on all attached external storage, including USBs.
The DPRK's custom software is also thought to scan text for particular words or phrases, ultimately deleting all files that contain those triggers — but researchers aren't sure which words or phrases are deemed too sensitive to read. Individual files are secretly "watermarked" with information that identifies all devices that open them, and each individual user's entire browser history is typically archived.
"The problem with some of these [data-smuggling] efforts right now is that the regime is implementing counter-information strategies," Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, said in a phone interview. "For every technological breakthrough, it seems like there's a potential technological counter."
"It's a combination of North Korean authorities trying to enforce an information environment that is as clean as possible, and the citizens trying to get around it," Kretchun added. "And [the citizens have] historically been very savvy and have been able to do that. But the North Korean government is generally more technologically advanced than its citizens at this point."
Information activists are fighting back
As the North Korean government changes its tactics, so do media-disseminating groups. Henry Song, North America director of No Chain for North Korea, said his organization recently switched its focus to foreign phones and SD cards, which are smaller and easier to conceal than USBs. He and others say that despite the challenges, now is not the time to lose momentum. Real changes are happening.
"The sense of loyalty or respect given to Kim Jong Un and others — that's no longer there," Song said. "The idolatry is being broken down."
"The sense of loyalty or respect given to Kim Jong Un and others — that's no longer there. The idolatry is being broken down."
That may be true, but opinions are divided about whether outside information will actually take down the regime. One 2015 Gallup survey of 250 defectors suggested between 80% and 90% of respondents had watched foreign films or TV shows in North Korea, but there's no telling what percentage of the population has actually developed a taste for Desperate Housewives — or what that would even really mean for the future of a nation with about 25 million people.
"History has told us that outside information and culture have helped end dictatorships in many places around the world," Alex Gladstein, one of several people behind the USB-collecting group Flash Drives for Freedom and chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, said. He argues that no matter what, the world has a responsibility to do something about human rights abuses.
"The North Korean people are alone. They're very alone," Gladstein said. "This is actually happening right now — torture, rape and murder are happening to hundreds of thousands of people. This is today, this is yesterday, this has been happening for the last few decades. That's on us as an international community, you know?"
Peter Ward, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, agreed "it's still a good idea" to send in foreign media, but he's not convinced that it alone will actually end Kim's authoritarian leadership.
"If the regime is going to be undermined, it's going to be undermined at the top," Ward said during a Skype call. "The problem is, to get funding, you have to really sell it as a quick solution. No one has any patience. People just want to collapse the country or denuclearize it."
But all hope is not yet lost, especially for North Korean defectors like Park.
"This transition period, we've always had to [deal with] — from CDs to USBs to smartphones," a grinning Park said, a USB drive in his hand. "Fundamentally, we work to give access to outside information."
In the end, anything that can make North Koreans freer is probably worth the effort. To this day, Park remembers his time passing through China fondly, despite the dangers of getting caught and repatriated to the DPRK. "It was fascinating. I thought of it as traveling, so I just loved it." He was in the outside world, after all — a place that so many North Koreans are now getting to know through screens.