By Andy Greenberg
But send your chunk of cheap flash memory into North Korea, and it becomes a powerful, even subversive object—one that a new activist project wants use to help chip away at the intellectual control of the hermit kingdom’s fascist government.
Late last week, the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and the Silicon Valley nonprofit Forum 280 launched Flash Drives for Freedom, an initiative to collect USB flash drive donations from Americans and then ship those slices of silicon to North Korean defector groups. The Korean activist organizations, starting with the Seoul-based non-profit North Korean Strategy Center, will then fill the drives with Western and South Korean films and TV shows and smuggle them across the border into North Korea, where their contraband contents can break Kim Jong-un’s ban on all foreign media. The glimpse of the outside world that those TV shows and films provide is meant to dispel the ideology and illusions the Kim regime depends on to control its populace: that the outside world is poor, dangerous, hostile, and inferior to North Korea.
“You can be involved just by shipping a USB drive to Palo Alto, and we’ll help to get it sent to North Korea,” says HRF’s chief strategy officer Alex Gladstein. “This is a viable technology that works there, that North Koreans have decided is a way to reach people.” Gladstein says that despite Americans’ notion of thumb drives as a near-obsolete technology, they still have the power to pierce North Korea’s internet blackout and give the country’s citizens a radically different view of America, their Southern neighbor and their own impoverished homeland. “Each one has the potential to literally change someone’s life,” he says.
PCs remain rare in North Korea, and the internet inaccessible to all but a few elites. But cheap, Chinese-made USB-compatible video players known as notels, and even smartphones, are increasingly common. With those devices in mind, groups like the North Korean Strategy Center, North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, and Fighters for a Free North Korea have all joined a growing movement to smuggle data in the form of USB drives and SD cards into the country. As WIRED detailed in a magazine cover story last March, their tactics range from attaching the contraband to balloons floated over from South Korea to hiding the USB drives in cargo holds of trucks passing over the North border with China. NKSC’s most straightforward tactic has been to arrange handoffs of packages in daring nighttime meetings at the Tumen and Yalu rivers that form North Korea’s northern border. They protect those smugglers by bribing officials on both sides. Using those tactics, NKSC alone now smuggles between 3,000 and 5,000 drives into the country every year, and aims to ramp up to a pace of 2,000 drives a month over the next three years.
USB drive donations would help the NKSC as it works to increase its data smuggling, says Sharon Stratton, one of organizers of the group’s USB-smuggling operations. But she admits that the drives themselves are only a fraction of the budget of their missions. For every drive they smuggle in and give to contacts inside North Korea, there’s also the cost of travel, bribes, and even focus groups with defectors to choose the most effective movies and films for opening North Korean minds. (American shows like “Friends” and “Desperate Housewives” are among North Koreans’ favorites, the group has found.)
But Stratton argues that the donated drives’ value extends beyond the hardware itself: They also serve as a clever marketing mechanism to get Americans thinking about the plight of intellectually repressed people halfway around the world. And she hopes this could also lead to more awareness of North Korean issues and more donations to their cause. In fact, the group is planning a Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for later this month. “We’re delighted to be able to get the physical flash drives themselves, since we’re continually sending them in, and it’s costly to keep buying them,” says Stratton. “But we’re really hoping this will develop more awareness in tech communities around what we’re doing…and result in more longterm partnerships with people who can support our information dissemination programs.”
A rare photo of a North Korean smuggler, carrying a bag of illegal USB drives on the Chinese side of the Tumen River as he prepares to cross back to his homeland. Activist Jung Kwang-il took the photo in May 2013.
When an American donates a USB drive and imagines it in the hands of a North Korean recipient, she argues, it changes their perspective on what might otherwise seem like a very foreign and intractable human rights issue. “It’s always been a challenge to get people to understand why North Koreans’ access to information is important, and this gives us a physical representation…It’s literally a key that will unlock a new world for North Koreans,” she says. “It’s a chance for us to grab hands with the supporter and say ‘this is what we’re going to do with your USB drive, and this is why it’s important.'”
Stratton adds that sourcing USB drives from Americans can also win hearts and minds in North Korea. If North Korean recipients find out that someone in the US donated the drives, it could help to counter the Kim regime’s portrayal of Americans as murderous capitalist imperialists. “It’s important that they see ‘people in the outside world that I don’t know are sending me these thumb drives,'” says Stratton. That gesture helps to show “that maybe Americans aren’t the big bad enemy after all.”
HRF and Forum280 aren’t the only groups to have hatched the idea of collecting drives from American donors: Stanford’s Korean Students Association has a similar collection project scheduled for next month. And HRF’s Gladstein hints that HRF’s ambitions for USB drive donations also extend beyond NKSC and even North Korea. He points to Cuba, where dissidents use the memory sticks to distribute political materials banned from the press, and where blogger Yoani Sanchez launched an opposition newspaper distributed on thumb drives. In a speech at HRF’s Oslo Freedom Forum in 2014, Sanchez called USB drives a “small technological revolution” for Cuba. “The day there is democratic change in Cuba, we’ll not only have to put up monuments to dissidents and those who opposed the government, we will also have to put up a monument to flash drives,” Sanchez told the Oslo crowd.
For now, however, HRF is focusing its campaign on a dictatorship whose digital repression makes even Havana look like Silicon Valley by comparison. “North Korea feels like this monolithic, impenetrable, unknowable black hole,” says NKSC’s Stratton. A project like HRF’s can change that sentiment, she says. “Your tiny, dusty USB drive will be in North Korea. You’ll probably never meet the person who has it, but you can be sure that someone will have it and will be happier for it.”