A two-day “hackathon” plans to harness the technical prowess of Silicon Valley to come up with new ways to get information safely into North Korea. Hack North Korea, scheduled to take place in San Francisco on August 2-3, is organized by the Human Rights Foundation, a New York-based group that focuses on closed societies.
Several prominent North Korean defectors will attend the event including pro-democracy activist Park Sang-hak, former North Korean child prisoner Kang Chol-hwan, media personality Park Yeon-mi and Kim Heung-Kwang, a former professor in computer studies in North Korea. They are expected to speak on the methods currently used to get information into the country, which include CDs and DVDs, USB sticks, shortwave radio, and leaflets dropped from balloons.
Organisers said they are not encouraging hacking in the sense of gaining unauthorised access to data, but is instead hoping to “spark better ideas for getting information into the world’s most closed and isolated society”. Participants will become familiar with the various ways that information and truth are smuggled into North Korea today, and gain an understanding of the technology landscape inside the country.
Earlier this year, helped HRF to launch balloons carrying USB flash drives loaded with Korean-language Wikipedia as well as pro-democracy materials and DVDs with South Korean dramas, so that they could float from the launch site in Paju, in South Korea, across the border into the North.
Park Sang-hak also visited Silicon Valley with HRF, to improve GPS tracking on the balloons, so that the group can try and follow what happens to the balloons once they cross the border.
North Korea is built on a myth: that it is a great country to live in, that nothing is lacking, and that the outside world should be viewed with fear and distrust. When people discover that their homeland is built on lies, they lose faith in the regime.
The lies have been so pervasive that even the most apolitical information can corrode them. A North Korean watching a South Korean love story on a foreign Korean DVD would not fail to notice, for example, that the refrigerator in the background is full of food.
Barbara Demick tells a story about a North Korean she met sometime around 2004, who had worked for the country’s fisheries division. He had access to foreign radio via a Chinese fishing boat that was confiscated for entering North Korean waters. The boat had a radio, and so he was able to listen to a South Korean radio drama. One such drama featured two women living in an apartment complex who are fighting over a parking space. Initially, the North Korean thought it was a parody: How could South Korea possibly have so many cars that people fight for parking spaces? He soon figured out that it was not a joke. A year later, he defected.
If a few snippets of South Korean radio or television can shatter North Koreans’ vision of the world, just imagine if they had access to the World Wide Web. Of course, any such access would be surveilled and censored to unimaginable extremes. North Korea’s leaders are likely watching China, which has shown great skill in employing both technology and human censors to keep its Internet in check. Yet even with these controls the Internet has transformed countless Chinese lives by granting previously unimaginable access to information and (virtual) assembly.
In North Korea, where the regime is far more brittle and shrouded in myth, the effect would be even more dramatic. No, the Internet would not automatically trigger a North Korean spring. Revolutions are sparked by economic and political crises, or other events that brings public discontent to a boiling point. But when such events occur, a networked and informed society is far more likely to rise to the occasion.
North Koreans are indeed getting more information than ever before. Computers, television, DVDs, MP3 players and USB drives have found their way into North Korean hands. While domestic televisions must be fixed to official channels, North Koreans are increasingly gaining access to television sets that are capable of showing foreign broadcasts. Others modify their televisions to dodge state controls.
Modifying television sets is not a new phenomenon. In Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick describes how in the 1990s a young North Korean named Jun-sang bought a Sony television that had been fixed to government stations and had its tuners disabled by a North Korean version of “crippleware,” ensuring that televisions wouldn’t receive foreign broadcasts. He registered the set with the Electric Wave Inspection Bureau, which put a paper seal over the television’s buttons to certify it had been preset on the politically correct station. Television inspectors would show up unexpectedly to make sure nobody tampered with the sets.
Jun-sang, eager for news from outside North Korea, used a sewing needle to push the buttons without damaging the seal and also constructed his own antenna. Then, when everyone was asleep, he listened to South Korean television.
What he learned turned his world upside down.
He heard that the United States was supplying thousands of tons of rice in humanitarian aid. A U.S. congressional delegation said in a news conference that 2 million had died of starvation in North Korea. And for the first time Jun-sang heard the actual voice of his own leader, Kim Jong-il, whose words were usually read by reverent North Korean radio announcers. Kim’s voice was tinny, old, and utterly devoid of mystique. “Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick wrote. In Jun-sang’s case, these realizations contributed to his crisis of faith in the regime and his ultimate decision to defect.
Examples like these illustrate how even the most basic access to information could be devastating to the North Korean regime.