By Paul Szoldra
A human-rights organization is trying to influence people living in one of the most closed societies in the world with nothing more than USB sticks.
Earlier this year, the Human Rights Foundation launched "Flash Drives for Freedom," with the goal of changing the totalitarian system of North Korea to a more free and open society by delivering information and education, instead of relying on diplomacy or military action.
Roughly 10,000 drives loaded with "subversive" content will be delivered to the country by the end of this year.
"Truth is an incredibly dangerous weapon," Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the Human Rights Foundation, told Business Insider.
Often referred to as the "Hermit Kingdom," North Korea is one of the most closed societies in the world.
Its 24 million citizens live under the control of dictator Kim Jong Un and its myriad laws, which regulate everything from haircuts and dress to the use of electronics.
North Koreans are not supposed to have "unapproved" electronics like portable DVD players, but many get them anyway on the black market. Besides playing DVDs, many players can read USB or external hard drives.
But having one is a big risk. If discovered, then people could be sent to one of North Korea's many prison camps, often described as "modern-day gulags."
As portable DVD players have become more popular in the North, activist organizations outside of the country have realized that they might be the perfect Trojan horse for subverting the propaganda that is constantly delivered by the regime.
Since it no longer has a public distribution system backed by Soviet Union support, North Korea has seen its underground market for goods, from clothes to cigarettes to electronics, grow. "To try to stop these changes, the regime has stepped up its propaganda war on outside information — both by trying to restrict flows of information at the border and by increasing the promotion of its propaganda at home and abroad," Gladstein said.
That includes a recent announcement that it was creating its own Netflix-like device — an on-demand propaganda box for the home. Netflix is not involved in any way.
But that move may be too little, too late. HRF has collected tens of thousands of donated USB drives, which it erases and then loads up with content to counter the regime narrative. But it's not anything that explicitly says that the country is awful and so is the leadership.
Instead, HRF and its South Korean partners load up the drives with content that has softer messaging. A television show from the South, for example, is a subtle way to convince indoctrinated citizens that their neighbors are normal people who have an abundance of food and a bustling economy.
It would be less effective "if they just saw that 'Kim Jong-un is the devil,'" said Ellen Eoff, a development specialist at HRF. "It's much more subversive to show South Koreans who have running water."
HRF lets its South Korean partners, aided by defectors, figure out what to put on the drives. That often includes South Korean soap operas, Wikipedia articles, and Bollywood and Hollywood films. Gladstein mentioned "The Hunger Games" as one example.
Some drives even include footage of South Korea's bustling airports. "That's mind-blowing for them," Eoff said.
Once the group has enough, it loads up a satchel with the payload of USB drives. HRF has sent batches of 500 to 1,000 at a time to its partners.
The group has used balloons in the past for its deliveries.
Though lately it's been using drones. The drives are not just dropped en masse, as Gladstein said.
Instead, the drones are remotely piloted from South Korea to locations in the North where someone inside the country will pick them up and help distribute them. Then it comes back, ready to fly another day.
"Some of our partners have contacts that take the drives and scatter them across the ground of the market areas inside towns and villages," Gladstein said. "Then, in the dawn hours, street children pick up the drives and they sell them for a profit, given that they are valuable. Genius!"
Gladstein says defectors and Western journalists who visit the country are increasingly seeing changes within. "Almost every single North Korean defector and refugee that we've ever met came into contact with foreign information while they lived in North Korea," he said. "What we also know are that North Koreans are increasingly wearing Western or South Korean clothing, speaking in South Korean dialects, and are interested in Western goods and clothing."
HRF's work has, not surprisingly, angered the North Korean regime. "They threatened to bomb our building," Eoff said.
But he says that the frequent threats have not dissuaded the group from its mission. "Change will come," Gladstein said. "Last year HRF did a poll of the top North Korean defector civic groups based in Seoul. All said the regime would fall between 2017 and 2020."