The theory of Jung Gwang Il’s work is essentially this: Tiny packets of information just might bring an end to decades of tyranny in his homeland. From his base in South Korea, he sends USB drives, SD cards, and other devices—loaded with Hollywood movies, South Korean television shows, and testimonials from North Korean defectors—across North Korea’s borders.
Jung runs No Chain, one of several defector-led organizations trying to pump data into North Korea through helium balloons, human smugglers, and even helicopter drones. The idea is that the contraband flash drives and memory cards will then make their way to North Korea’s black market, where they can be sold and plugged into a computer or the Chinese-made portable media player known as a “notel.” By some rough estimates, 10 percent of North Korean households have a computer at home, and up to half of urban households own a notel.
In conversations with Jung, I’ve asked the 53-year-old activist many questions in hopes of answering only one: Why has he decided to do what he does? What I’ve come to understand is that the trajectory of Jung’s life as he relayed it to me—from his immigration to North Korea as a child to his military service as a young man to his nightmarish ordeals as a political prisoner—is, at its core, a story about the power of information.
With all the focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and various provocations, people don’t always recognize “how powerful information can be,” Jung told me. He argues that it’s this information that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s 32-year-old leader, fears most.