Hackers design clandestine aerials to help North Koreans watch banned TV

Idea for covert signal receivers that could be smuggled into the isolated country was proposed at a Silicon Valley ‘hackathon’ competition. North Korea Tech reports

The Guardian, UK/August 6, 2014

By Martyn Williams

A group of budding young developers has won a competition to find new ways of spreading information inside North Korea, with their idea for small, flat, easily hidden aerials that could intercept South Korean TV programmes.

Hack North Korea, a two-day ‘hackathon’ organised by New York-based charity Human Rights Foundation, brought together programmers, human rights campaigners and defectors to San Francisco at the weekend to find news ways to circumvent the country’s strict controls on the flow of information into, and within, the country.

Several teams spent the weekend working on ideas that would enable digital information to be concealed, hidden or otherwise transmitted without raising the suspicion of authorities.

The winning team – which included two 17 year-olds – said their aim was to make real-time information available to North Korean citizens.

They had two ideas. The first uses micro-radio devices the size of credit cards, based on existing Raspberry Pi technology, which would pick up signals from South Korea. They would come pre-loaded with videos and data, and would be small enough to be dropped by balloons over North Korea, or concealed along traditional trading routes.

The second, described as “more revolutionary” by HRF’s Alex Gladstein, involves creating small, flat satellite receivers that would be able to pick up more than 200 channels from the South Korean TV broadcaster Skylife.

“The team’s new iPad-sized satellite receivers would be easily concealable, and televisions could be directly plugged into their device with existing coax or USB connections, allowing North Koreans to watch up-to-the–minute news, TV shows, and other culture and programming from the outside world”, said Gladstein. 

The team included Matthew Lee, a former Google employee who now works on a San Francisco start-up, as well as 17 year-old Korean–American siblings Madison and Justice Suh from Virginia, who heard about the event on a hacking message board.

The group proposed using compact flat antennas and said they believed the service would be unlikely to be jammed, because it would first target the homes of North Korean elites, and they wouldn’t want to lose service. Some believe South Korean television programmes, which are smuggled into North Korea on USB sticks and DVDs, are already helping North Korean society to open up.

They won two round-trip air tickets to Seoul to further their ideas with defector groups. The competition was judged by three North Korean defectors and two representatives from HRF, which said it would also help to bring the group’s idea to fruition.

Other ideas ranged from the low-tech (using a catapult to fling things across the Yalu River that divides North Korea and China), to the high-tech, involving satellites and stenography.

North Korean defector Park Yeon-mi, best known for her appearances on the South Korean TV show Now On My Way To Meet You, was one of four escapees who spoke at the event. She said watching a smuggled copy of the 1997 Hollywood film Titanic spurred her to make the long, and often dangerous, journey most defectors take from North Korea through China to South Korea.

Park Sang-hak, chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, spoke about his programme to send leaflets into North Korea via balloon. Park’s organisation regularly releases balloons carrying large bags full of propaganda leaflets, DVDs, USB sticks, radios and other items from a point near the inter-Korean border. The bags are timed to release their contents after a certain period of time over North Korean soil.

Choi Song-il, a former North Korean dentist, joined the North Korean Strategy Center upon his arrival in South Korea and still conducts activities along the Chinese border today, helping research the current state of North Korea through talks with defectors that have made it out of the country.

Kim Heung-kwang, a former professor at Pyongyang Computer Technology University and executive director of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, spoke about the importance of foreign information in the country and how it could educate people and help the free thinking of individuals.

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