On a cloudy, moonless night somewhere in northeastern China, three men creep through a stand of Japanese Clethra trees. They carry no flashlights, and the sky is so dark that they hear the sound of the rushing Tumen River before they see it: They’ve arrived at the North Korean border.
Earlier in the evening at a nearby restaurant, they treated the local Chinese police chief and head of the border patrol to a blowout feast. Following an after-meal session of pricey Chunghwa cigarettes and shots of Moutai liquor, the officials made phone calls telling subordinates to abandon their posts for several hours.
A middle-aged North Korean defector named Jung Kwang-il, steps into the tall weeds of the riverbank. He pulls out a cheap laser pointer and flashes it across the water. Then he waits for a response: If he sees an X slashed through the air by a laser on the opposite bank, the operation will be called off. Instead, he’s answered with a red circle painted through the darkness.
Soon after, a compact man dressed in only a hoodie and boxer shorts wades out of the waist-high water and onto the riverbank where Jung and his companions stand. Jung arranged the meeting earlier in the day using coded language over walkie-talkies. Jung hands the man a tightly wrapped plastic bag containing a trove of precious black-market data: 200 Sandisk USB drives and 300 micro SD cards, each packed with 16 gigabytes of videos like Lucy, Son of God, 22 Jump Street, and entire seasons of South Korean reality television shows, comedies, and soap operas.
The man in the hoodie slings the bag of digital contraband over his shoulder. Then he says good-bye and disappears back into the world’s deepest black hole of information. Continued