The state propaganda system of North Korea indoctrinates its 25 million citizens from birth, insisting that the Kim family is infallible and that the country enjoys a superior standard of living. (In a ranking of 197 countries’ press freedom by research group Freedom House, North Korea places last.) It sees any attempt to introduce competing ideas, even the possession of a radio capable of accessing foreign frequencies, as a threat to its power.
A growing movement of North Korean defector activist groups, including Kang Chol-hwan’s NKSC and others, like North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity and Fighters for a Free North Korea, views that reliance on ideological control as a weakness: Outside data is now penetrating North Korea’s borders more than ever before.
Kang appears on a top-10 list of North Korean defector assassination targets. His quiet demeanor masks a deep, lifelong anger directed at North Korea’s dictatorship, which held him and his entire family in a prison camp for 10 years of his childhood.
“What I do is what Kim Jong-un fears most,” says one smuggler. “For every USB drive I send across, there are perhaps 100 North Koreans who begin to question why they live this way. Why they’ve been put in a jar.”
For Kang, that makes each of those coveted flash drives a self-propelled weapon in a free-market information insurgency. “Right now, perhaps 30 percent of the population in North Korea knows about the outside world,” Kang says. “If you reach 50 percent, that’s enough people to start making demands, to start making changes.”
And if that enlightened audience reaches 80 percent? Or 90 percent? Kang leans forward. “Then there’s no way the North Korean government, in its current form, could continue to exist.”