North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan founded North Korea Strategy Center and over the past few years, Kang’s organization has become the largest in a movement of political groups who routinely smuggle data into North Korea. NKSC alone annually injects around 3,000 USB drives filled with foreign movies, music, and ebooks.
Kang’s goal, as wildly optimistic as it may sound, is nothing less than the overthrow of the North Korean government. He believes that the Kim dynasty’s three-generation stranglehold on the North Korean people—and its draconian restriction on almost any information about the world beyond its borders—will ultimately be broken not by drone strikes or caravans of Humvees but by a gradual, guerrilla invasion of thumb drives filled with bootleg episodes of Friends and Judd Apatow comedies.
Kang’s NKSC, with its pop cultural offerings, capitalizes on North Korea’s flowering black markets. The group’s smugglers inside the country are motivated by profit as much as politics: A USB stick loaded with contraband films sells for more than a month’s food budget for most middle-class North Korean families. A pack of hundreds represents a small fortune. “In North Korea a USB drive is like gold,” one NKSC smuggler tells me.
Kang likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions. “When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” Kang says. “They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind. Continued