Kang Chol Hwan and The Aquariums of Pyongyang

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A contact in the local government warned [North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan that one of his companions] had told the police about Kang’s secret radio sessions. He was under surveillance and faced potential arrest and reassignment to a labor camp. Posing as a businessman, he bribed border guards on the Yalu River and escaped to Dalian, China, and finally to Seoul.

After his escape Kang wrote a memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, originally published in French in 2000 and a year later translated into English. It was a revelation: the most detailed account yet of life in North Korea’s gulags. Kang was asked to speak around the world, touring Ivy League schools and European conferences. President George W. Bush invited him to visit the White House, where they discussed his homeland’s growing human rights crisis.

Back in South Korea, Kang’s story had no such impact. President Kim Dae-jung had won a Nobel Prize for the South’s so-called Sunshine Policy of compromise with the North to reestablish diplomatic ties. Kang’s story was seen as unfashionably antagonistic to the Kim regime and largely ignored.

By 2005, Kang had given up hope that South Korea or the rest of the world would act against the North Korean government. Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.

That year, a Christian radio station donated 5,000 portable windup radios to Kang’s newly formed organization NKSC. Through defector contacts in China, he smuggled them into houses along North Korea’s Tumen River border. With funding from private donors and governments it declines to name, NKSC has since grown to 15 paid staffers, including independent operators along the Chinese border, each with their own contacts in North Korea.

Kang Chol-hwan founded the dissident group NKSC, focused on injecting foreign media into North Korea. Here he holds a popular video player known in the country as a notel.

He’s looking at ways the American tech community could advance NKSC’s mission. And in conjunction with the Human Rights Foundation, it’s been talking to Silicon Valley types about building new tools—everything from a small concealable satellite dish to steganographic videogames that hide illegal data.


This entry was posted in , , by Grant Montgomery.

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