On a cloudy, moonless night somewhere in northeastern China, three men creep through a stand of Japanese Clethra trees. They carry no flashlights, and the sky is so dark that they hear the sound of the rushing Tumen River before they see it: They’ve arrived at the North Korean border.
Earlier in the evening at a nearby restaurant, they treated the local Chinese police chief and head of the border patrol to a blowout feast of more than 20 dishes, climaxing with a southern China delicacy—a carp deep-fried and served alive, its mouth and gills still moving. Following an after-meal session of pricey Chunghwa cigarettes and shots of Moutai liquor, the officials made phone calls telling subordinates to abandon their posts for several hours. After dozens of these bribe dinners, they had become routine, practically a tradition among friends; by now the smugglers even had their own key to the rusty bike lock securing the border area’s barbed wire fence.
Two hours later the trio’s leader, a middle-aged North Korean defector named Jung Kwang-il, steps into the tall weeds of the riverbank. He pulls out a cheap laser pointer and flashes it across the water. Then he waits for a response: If he sees an X slashed through the air by a laser on the opposite bank, the operation will be called off. Instead, he’s answered with a red circle painted through the darkness.
Soon after, a compact man dressed in only a hoodie and boxer shorts wades out of the waist-high water and onto the riverbank where Jung and his companions stand. Jung arranged the meeting earlier in the day using coded language over walkie-talkies. The men embrace and speak softly for a minute about each other’s health, the price of North Korean mushrooms, and Jung’s mother, whom he’d left behind in the North 10 years ago. Then Jung hands the man a tightly wrapped plastic bag containing a trove of precious black-market data: 200 Sandisk USB drives and 300 micro SD cards, each packed with 16 gigabytes of videos like Lucy, Son of God, 22 Jump Street, and entire seasons of South Korean reality television shows, comedies, and soap operas. To bribe the guards on the North Korean side, Jung has included in the bag an HP laptop computer, cigarettes, liquor, and close to $1,000 in cash.
The man in the hoodie slings the bag of digital contraband over his shoulder. Then he says good-bye and disappears back into the world’s deepest black hole of information.
That smuggling mission was planned and executed last September by the North Korea Strategy Center and its 46-year-old founder, Kang Chol-hwan. Over the past few years, Kang’s organization has become the largest in a movement of political groups who routinely smuggle data into North Korea. NKSC alone annually injects around 3,000 USB drives filled with foreign movies, music, and ebooks. Kang’s goal, as wildly optimistic as it may sound, is nothing less than the overthrow of the North Korean government. He believes that the Kim dynasty’s three-generation stranglehold on the North Korean people—and its draconian restriction on almost any information about the world beyond its borders—will ultimately be broken not by drone strikes or caravans of Humvees but by a gradual, guerrilla invasion of thumb drives filled with bootleg episodes of Friends and Judd Apatow comedies.
Kang likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions. “When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” Kang says. “They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind.”
I first meet Kang in a conference room of his office on the ninth floor of a Seoul high-rise. Outside, a bored plainclothes policeman keeps watch, part of a 24/7 security detail provided by the South Korean government after Kang appeared on a top-10 list of North Korean defector assassination targets. Kang answers my questions in a soft voice and maintains a look of calm bemusement. But several NKSC staffers later tell me that his quiet demeanor masks a deep, lifelong anger directed at North Korea’s dictatorship, which held him and his entire family in a prison camp for 10 years of his childhood. (“Compared to some defectors I’ve met, he’s a little more pissed off,” one staffer confides.)
It doesn’t take a decade in a gulag to see that North Korea needs a revolution. Since the Korean Peninsula split at the end of World War II, seven decades of disastrous financial decisions, isolationist economics, and sociopathic military threats against the rest of the world have turned the country into what Georgetown Asian studies professor and former National Security Council adviser Victor Cha calls simply “the worst place on earth.” Its recent history is a litany of disaster: Despite having a stronger economy and better infrastructure than South Korea in 1945, its GDP is now a fortieth the size of its southern neighbor. Only 16 percent of households have adequate access to food, according to a 2012 study by the World Food Program, stunting growth in 28 percent of the population. In some areas of the country, up to 40 percent of children under 5 are affected. The effects are mental as well as physical. A 2008 study by the National Intelligence Council found that a quarter of North Korean military conscripts are disqualified for cognitive disabilities.
The totalitarian government inherited by its 32-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un, punishes any real political resistance with death. And the regime’s most powerful tool for control remains its grip on North Korean minds. The state propaganda system indoctrinates its 25 million citizens from birth, insisting that the Kim family is infallible and that the country enjoys a superior standard of living. In a ranking of 197 countries’ press freedom by research group Freedom House, North Korea places last. It sees any attempt to introduce competing ideas, even the possession of a radio capable of accessing foreign frequencies, as a threat to its power; these infractions are punishable by exile to one of its prison camps, which hold as many as 200,000 people, according to Amnesty International. “The Kim regime needs its ideology,” Cha says. Without it, he argues, North Korea would face the same threats as every dictatorship, such as an internal coup or a popular revolt. “If they get to the point where all they can do is point guns at people, they’ll know their system has failed.”
A growing movement of North Korean defector activist groups, including Kang’s NKSC and others, like North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity and Fighters for a Free North Korea, views that reliance on ideological control as a weakness: Outside data is now penetrating North Korea’s borders more than ever before. One group has stashed USB drives in Chinese cargo trucks. Another has passed them over from tourist boats that meet with fishermen mid-river. An NKSC operative showed me a video in which he crawls under a border fence, walks into the Tumen River, and throws two tires to the opposite bank. Each one was filled with South Korean Choco Pies, Chinese cigarettes, and USB sticks loaded with movies like Snowpiercer, The Lives of Others, and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Even The Interview—the Kim Jong-un assassination comedy that the North Korean government tried to keep from being released by using threats, intimidation, and (according to the FBI) a devastating hacking operation against Sony Pictures—has made its way into the country. Chinese traders’ trucks carried 20 copies of the film across the border the day after Christmas, just two days after its online release. “What I do is what Kim Jong-un fears most,” says Jung, the smuggler, who shows me videos and pictures of his missions while seated in the lobby of a hospital in Bucheon, South Korea. Jung, wearing a military-style cap and pajamas, is taking a break from rehabilitation therapy for knee injuries he sustained while being tortured in a North Korean prison 15 years ago. “For every USB drive I send across, there are perhaps 100 North Koreans who begin to question why they live this way. Why they’ve been put in a jar.”
Each activist group has its own tactics: Fighters for a Free North Korea loads up 35-foot balloons that float into the country and rain down pamphlets, US dollar bills, and USB drives full of political materials. North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity smuggles in USBs filled with short documentaries about the outside world created by the group’s founder, a former North Korean computer scientist who used to help the government confiscate illicit media.
Kang’s NKSC, with its pop cultural offerings, capitalizes on North Korea’s flowering black markets. The group’s smugglers inside the country are motivated by profit as much as politics: A USB stick loaded with contraband films sells for more than a month’s food budget for most middle-class North Korean families. A pack of hundreds represents a small fortune. “In North Korea a USB drive is like gold,” one NKSC smuggler tells me.
For Kang, that makes each of those coveted flash drives a self-propelled weapon in a free-market information insurgency. “Right now, perhaps 30 percent of the population in North Korea knows about the outside world,” Kang says. “If you reach 50 percent, that’s enough people to start making demands, to start making changes.”
And if that enlightened audience reaches 80 percent? Or 90 percent? Kang leans forward. “Then there’s no way the North Korean government, in its current form, could continue to exist.”
Kang Chol-hwan was 9 years old when his grandfather, a high-level government official and ethnic Korean immigrant from Japan, suddenly disappeared. It was the summer of 1977, and within a few weeks, soldiers came for the rest of his family, summarily stating that Kang’s grandfather had been convicted of “high treason” but giving no details. The entire three-generation family would immediately be sent to a reeducation camp. The government confiscated the family’s house and nearly all its possessions, though the soldiers took pity on the tearful Kang and allowed him to carry out an aquarium of his favorite tropical fish.
Soon after the family’s arrival at the Yodok concentration camp in the country’s northeastern mountains, the fish floated dead in their tank. The family would spend the next decade in one of Kim Il-sung’s most notorious gulags.
Kang’s daily life alternated between school—rote memorization of communist propaganda—and slave labor in the camp’s cornfields, lumberyards, and gold mines. For a time, Kang’s work detail included burying the corpses of prisoners who died daily from starvation or perished in mine cave-ins and dynamite accidents.
Children who disobeyed even slightly were beaten. Adult transgressors spent days, or even months, in the sweatbox, a tiny windowless shack in which victims could only crouch on hands and knees. Sometimes prisoners, including Kang, would be required to witness executions. Once he and other inmates were ordered to stone the hanging corpses of would-be escapees. “The skin on the victims’ faces eventually came undone and nothing remained of their clothing but a few bloody shreds,” Kang would later describe it. “I had the strange feeling of being swallowed up in a world where the earth and sky had changed places.”
As the years passed, Kang became a resourceful survivor. He learned to eat wild salamanders in a single swallow and catch rats with a lasso he designed out of wire. Their meat sustained him and several family members on the verge of starvation through winters at subzero temperatures.
When Kang was 18, the guards announced one day without preamble that his family would be released as a demonstration of leader Kim Il-sung’s generosity. Except Kang’s grandfather—he had been assigned to a different camp, his treason still unexplained. Kang never saw him again.
In his postprison life as a deliveryman in the western county of Pyungsung, Kang harbored few illusions about the corruption of the North Korean regime. But it wasn’t until around three years later that he accessed the information that crystallized his contempt. It came from a pirate radio.
A friend gave Kang two radio receivers. Kang paid a bribe to avoid registering one with police, and he learned how to disassemble its case and remove the filament that hardwired it to official regime frequencies. He and his closest confidants would huddle under a blanket—to muffle the sound from eavesdroppers—and listen to Voice of America, Christian stations, and the South’s Korean Broadcasting System. “At first I didn’t believe it,” he says. “Then I started to believe but felt guilty for listening. Eventually, I couldn’t stop.”
Under their blanket, they relearned all of North Korea’s history, including the fact that the North, not the South, had started the Korean War. Beginning in 1989, they followed the breakdown of Soviet Eastern Europe and the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, a close friend of Kim Il-sung. They heard the music of Simon and Garfunkel and Michael Jackson, even learning the lyrics and softly singing along. “Listening to the radio gave us the words we needed to express our dissatisfaction,” Kang would later write. “Every program, each new discovery, helped us tear a little freer from the enveloping web of deception.”
Soon a contact in the local government warned him: One of his companions had told the police about Kang’s secret radio sessions. He was under surveillance and faced potential arrest and reassignment to a labor camp. Posing as a businessman, he bribed border guards on the Yalu River and escaped to Dalian, China, and finally to Seoul.
After his escape Kang wrote a memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, originally published in French in 2000 and a year later translated into English. It was a revelation: the most detailed account yet of life in North Korea’s gulags. Kang was asked to speak around the world, touring Ivy League schools and European conferences. President George W. Bush invited him to visit the White House, where they discussed his homeland’s growing human rights crisis. “It was always just a statistic—hundreds of thousands of people in labor camps,” says Georgetown’s Cha, who advised Bush on North Korea. “But Kang’s book put a name and a face and a story to these abuses.”
Back in South Korea, Kang’s story had no such impact. President Kim Dae-jung had won a Nobel Prize for the South’s so-called Sunshine Policy of compromise with the North to reestablish diplomatic ties. Kang’s story was seen as unfashionably antagonistic to the Kim regime and largely ignored.
By 2005, Kang had given up hope that South Korea or the rest of the world would act against the North Korean government. Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.
That year, a Christian radio station donated 5,000 portable windup radios to Kang’s newly formed organization. Through defector contacts in China, he smuggled them into houses along North Korea’s Tumen River border. “Guards come to these houses to rest and buy cigarettes,” Kang explains. “We would give them these little radios too. So all of these bored kids, during their patrols, could listen to foreign radio broadcasts at night.”
With funding from private donors and governments it declines to name, NKSC has since grown to 15 paid staffers, including independent operators along the Chinese border, each with their own contacts in North Korea. Kang hopes to soon expand smuggling operations to 10,000 USB drives a year.
He’s also looking at ways the American tech community could advance NKSC’s mission. The group is working with the Wikimedia Foundation to put a North Korean–dialect version of Wikipedia on every flash drive it smuggles over. And in conjunction with the Human Rights Foundation, it’s been talking to Silicon Valley types about building new tools—everything from a small concealable satellite dish to steganographic videogames that hide illegal data. (The activists have considered delivering USBs with miniature drones, but that option remains impractically expensive.) But as his group gains momentum, Kang faces a personal dilemma: Several of his family members remain inside North Korea, including his younger sister, Mi-ho. Despite canvassing his contacts there and filing a special request through the United Nations for information about Mi-ho’s whereabouts, Kang hasn’t been able to find her. She may even have been reimprisoned, says Choi Yoon-cheol, NKSC’s second-most-senior staffer. “Mr. Kang knows that the more active he is, the closer he gets to his vision, the more his family will suffer,” Choi says. “It must be incredibly difficult to know that what you’re doing can hurt the people you love.”
When I first ask Kang about his sister, he denies any connection between her safety and his work. Perhaps in an effort to protect her, he argues that the two are now estranged.
Besides, he coldly insists, his own family is no longer the issue. “This is a government that doesn’t deserve to survive,” he says. “If someone has to destroy it, I’ll gladly be the one.”
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