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Breaking The North Korean Information Blockade

Visitors look at the military wire fences at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea, on Feb. 14.
Lee Jin-man
Visitors look at the military wire fences at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea, on Feb. 14.

North Korea is considered the most reclusive country in the world. Outsiders know very little about what happens inside the Hermit Kingdom.

North Koreans, in turn, know very little about the outside world. The regime of dictator Kim Jong Un bans nearly all forms of outside media. North Koreans are exposed only to what their government tells them, giving them a skewed view of their own country.

A group of nonprofits in the U.S. is trying to change that with USB drives. The group is asking Americans to donate thumb drives, which are then loaded with Western TV and movies and smuggled into North Korea.

The idea for Flash Drives for Freedom was started by the Human Rights Foundation. Sharon Stratton is the U.S. program officer with the North Korean Strategy Center, one of the groups involved. She spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about what goes on the flash drives and what the risks are for the people involved.

Interview Highlights

On what information goes on the flash drives

Essentially what we do is we load up these memory storage devices with very different kinds of content. So, not only South Korean or Western films, shows. We put on documentaries, radio recordings, PDFs with South Korean newspapers as well as an offline version of Wikipedia. So we load these memory storage devices, including USBs, with this content. And we work with a network of trusted partners who work on the North Korea-China border. And they distribute these into North Korea.

On what they want the information to show

Through focus groups in South Korea, we're able to sit down and have more in-depth conversations with recent defectors about what kind of media North Koreans are seeking, what they're amenable to, and what they want to see more of.

We don't put in any content that's inflammatory or critical or antagonistic toward the North Korean government. Not only would that compromise potentially the safety of North Korean users who are accessing this foreign media, but it's also just not going to be very effective and North Koreans aren't really interested in that kind of content.

Other kinds of content that we put on USBs are documentaries that are made by North Korean defectors who are adjusting to their new lives in South Korea. So they're able to show them through the eyes of a North Korean: What it's like living in South Korea — the challenges that come along with that, but also the opportunities.

On the risk involved in watching

It is technically illegal in North Korea to access and to distribute foreign media. Security of these individuals in North Korea is our primary concern. It's important to remember that access to information in North Korea has been increasing. It's not just ordinary North Koreans who are accessing foreign media, it's actually also elites — people who are in government positions, people of rank and privilege. So it's becoming more common. Simply possessing a USB itself is not going to see someone get thrown immediately into jail.

On the types of punishment for being caught watching

It's difficult to confirm what these punishments are but defector accounts that we get range from ... open trials, or maybe you that have to pay off an official to avoid any kind of punishment. It is difficult to get information exactly on what kinds of punishments are being meted out.

On the smugglers who take the flash drives into the country

The North Korea-China border is much more porous than maybe many people would expect. There's somewhere in the tens of thousands of Chinese and North Koreans who are moving across that border. They're moving information, they're moving goods. And it's risky work for them and there is a cost involved, so we do pay them.

On the goals of the campaign

The end goal of our information dissemination efforts is not to get people to defect. It's more about North Koreans who are in North Korea being able to have a changed worldview. Change their perspectives and then lead and sort of speak to any changes they want to see in their country themselves. The end goal is not to say, "We want you to leave North Korea." We want North Koreans to be able to say, "Well this is what I want for North Korea."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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