By Joshua Rhett Miller
A joint initiative between the Human Rights Foundation and Forum 280 is collecting donated flash drives to be erased and then loaded up with films, e-books and other content from the outside world to eventually be smuggled into North Korea, where citizens will covertly watch in groups. Flash Drives for Freedom, which began as a way to disseminate Western blockbusters and South Korean television, has morphed into a marketplace of documentaries and educational content – with the hope of sparking an intellectual revolution down the line.
“It started with the South Korean soap operas and the big budget Hollywood hits, but the market for that sort of thing has almost become saturated,” Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, told The Post of Flash Drives for Freedom. “At this point, they’ve seen the bigger entertainment stuff. Now they want to see the documentaries – they want to watch about the fall of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring. That’s the kind of direction they’re going in.”
The effort to get content on flash drives into North Korea has been going on since 2009, primarily through defectors from the hermetic country, but response to the initiative’s booth at the South by Southwest film and music festival this week has been “pretty amazing,” Gladstein said.
“It’s kind of catching on a little bit,” he said. “There’s now enough flash drives out there to make a huge dent in the North Korean propaganda machine.”
An estimated 7,500 drives were sent into North Korea by activist groups in 2015, according to HRF data, and roughly 10,000 were sent in 2016, the first year of the campaign.
A total of 20,000 drives have been collected by HRF and Forum 280 within the past 12 months, including donations from USB Memory Direct, and are now being prepped for shipment into Pyongyang and elsewhere. This year’s goal is to get 50,000 drives into the country, Gladstein said, and perhaps that’s where your lonely or unneeded thumb drive could come in.
“I mean, a lot of people still have flash drives but they don’t really use them anymore,” he said. “But they’ve still kept them. People hang onto them and when they’re told it could make a difference in someone’s life, sometimes they react.”
Once inside North Korea, whether smuggled by balloon or on foot or truck via North Korea’s border with China, Gladstein said the drives are shared among relatives, friends and colleagues, most often watched by small groups in homes, generating dozens of impressions or more per viewing. The drives are brought into North Korea in bundles of up to 1,000 at a time.
Most of the content, particularly early on in the effort, was entertainment, curated talk shows, South Korean soap operas and news clippings. Internal demand has now shifted to more “provocative” content, Gladstein said, including a Korean-language Wikipedia and other educational content unavailable to the average North Korean living with a computer.
One popular big-budget Hollywood title that generated interest in the country was 2014’s “The Interview,” the film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as journalists who arrange an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before being recruited by the CIA to kill him. Sony ending up scrapping the planned Christmas Day release after the clips of the leader’s cinematic death surfaced online.
The film’s full version didn’t make it into the country, Gladstein said. Instead, most viewers have seen key scenes from the movie, strategically hidden after the beginning of a North Korean propaganda film.
“They’re going to play a really important role in the awakening of the people,” he said of the films and other content. “[Flash drives] are kind of the medium of choice at the moment.”
Without access to the internet, most North Koreans use portable media players called notels or USB-enabled smartphones to view the content. Mini SD cards are also being added to the mix since their smaller size makes them even harder to detect, Gladstein said.
That need for secrecy is rooted in the information control aspect of the North Korean regime. Distributing or consuming information from outside the country can lead to charges of “possessing or bringing in corrupt and decadent culture,” carrying sentences of up 15 years in labor camps, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
More than 91 percent of North Koreans polled by the think tank consume foreign media at least once a month, a study released in January found. The poll was the first to confirm from within North Korea that escapees from the country are not the only citizens exposed to outside forms of information and entertainment.
“At first I watched outside media purely out of curiosity,” one North Korean defector said, according to the study, Information and Its Consequences in North Korea. “However, as time went by, I began to believe in the contents. It was an addictive experience. Once you start watching, you simply cannot stop.”
Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the think tank, said the North Korean regime wholly depends on total control of information in order to maintain power.
“Having access to outside information eventually creates more space between the individual and the regime itself, so that space, if it grows, can lead to the development of a civil society later,” she told The Post. “I think the roots of change exist in North Korea, but it’s a very slow process.”