Tiny memory cards and fluffy teddy bears are among the most popular items for North Koreans shopping in Dandong, China’s gateway city to its impoverished and isolated neighbor.
North Korean traders are the big buyers for the memory cards – and that could get them into trouble back home.
“We help them copy whatever they want onto microSD cards,” said Yao, who would only give his surname, in his tiny store primarily selling cameras. “They usually want South Korean TV dramas,” he said, sliding open a display cabinet to reveal a stack of the tiny memory cards, each the size of a fingernail, that slot directly into DVD players and computers.
The flow of information in and out of North Korea is tightly controlled by authorities. Most North Koreans cannot access the internet or foreign media and share content secretly on USB sticks. But tiny microSD cards are increasingly popular now because North Korea has been cracking down on USBs, Yao said. “It’s getting harder to bring USBs across the border, customs will check what’s on them. But microSD cards are smaller, easier to slip through,” he said.
Apart from their small size – the cards can be woven into clothes or hidden between the pages of a book – MicroSD cards can often be directly inserted into a “Notel“, a device popular in North Korea which can be powered by a car battery and plays DVDs and media from USB sticks and memory cards.
“MicroSD cards make it easier and safer for North Koreans to smuggle foreign digital media in from China,” said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization which works with defectors. “Once inside, it gets copied onto multiple USB sticks and memory cards, making it difficult for the authorities to effectively block out foreign information that undermines their propaganda and ideologies,” Park said.