Breaking The North Korean Information Blockade

Feb 21, 2016
Originally published on February 22, 2016 5:21 pm

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."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We know very little about what happens inside North Korea. And the average North Korean knows even less about us. The regime bans nearly all forms of outside media to make sure citizens there are exposed only to the party line. A group of nonprofits in the U.S. is trying to change that with USB drives. Sharon Stratton is with the North Korea Strategy Center, one of the groups involved. She told us how it works.

SHARON STRATTON: 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 off-line version of Wikipedia. And we work with a network of trusted partners who work on the North Korea-China border. And they distribute these into North Korea.

MARTIN: What are you trying to show? What are you trying to illustrate?

STRATTON: 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 on any content that's inflammatory or critical or antagonistic towards the North Korean government. Not only would that compromise, potentially, the safety of North Korean users, but it's also just not going to be very effective. And North Koreans aren't really interested in that kind of content. One of the 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 - of a North Korean, what it's like living in South Korea, you know, the challenges that come along with that but also the opportunities.

MARTIN: What kind of risk do they incur by just watching that content?

STRATTON: 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 sort 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.

MARTIN: Although, just if they get caught viewing them, I understand the penalty is hard labor or death, even.

STRATTON: It's difficult to confirm what these punishments are. But defector accounts that we get range from - there's been open trials. Or you know, it may be that you 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.

MARTIN: What about the smugglers, the people who you use as a network to actually physically move these USB drives across the border into North Korea? Are they paid? What's in it for them? What are the risks that they face?

STRATTON: 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.

MARTIN: Are you trying to get people to defect?

STRATTON: 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.

MARTIN: Sharon Stratton is a U.S. program officer at the North Korea Strategy Center. Sharon, thanks so much for talking with us.

STRATTON: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.