Flashdrives for Freedom is literally using USB drives to stick it to Kim.
Flashdrives for Freedom is literally using USB drives to stick it to Kim.

How free information is driving the North Korean resistance

WHAT if the revolution was only as big as your thumb? It might be small, but it's mighty.

We're talking about 60,000 USB flash drives smuggled into North Korea - one of the most closed, secretive societies on earth - over the past 18 months. And there's another 60,000 to come. Some flash drives are smuggled in by foot over the Chinese border. Others are smuggled via drones or balloons.

What's on the flash drives, you ask? They are jam-packed with outside media and educational materials - everything from the huge sections of Wikipedia written in Korean to parts of the 2014 Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg film The Interview about North Korea, and South Korean soap operas and K-Pop videos. In some cases, family members in South Korea separated from their loved ones in North Korea are simply sending back photos.

The Silicon Valley non-profit, Forum 280, and the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) launched Flash Drives for Freedom in order to "to flood the market and to get as much outside media and information into the country as possible [and] to make it as cheap and readily available to anybody who wanted to get it."

That's according to Jim Warnock, the Director of Outreach for HRF who speaks to me via Skype from Los Angeles. He explains that all the content on the drives is decided by North Korean defectors living in South Korea. It's not American propaganda.

"We let our North Korean partners decide what they think is going to be most effective and most receptive by the North Korean people. Primarily that's just pop culture, they want entertainment.

"We're seeing so much … rhetoric that's happening between the leaders of the US and North Korea but nobody really focuses on the people that are behind the walls.

"They've suffered almost 70 years of the most brutal oppression that's been on the face of the planet. And we really need to start empowering them to push back," Jim says.

Don't forget that North Koreans only have access to state-sanctioned TV, radio and newspapers. Except for an elite few, the population has no internet access. So hand delivery - or via drone - is the next-best thing.

With a smile, Jim describes the thousands of USBs as an "analog hack."

"It's very rudimentary but you have to meet people where they're at," he says.

The idea for Flash Drives for Freedom came from a man called Kang Chol-Hwan. He's the founder of a defector-led NGO called the North Korean Strategy Center. (The Center is in Seoul, South Korea.)

One day Kang - who was previously imprisoned in North Korea as a child and spent 10 years in a concentration camp before escaping - told Jim and his colleagues: "A million flash drives would change my country."

At that stage some North Korean defectors in South Korea were smuggling some flash drives in, but their efforts were limited by funds.

"Our [Korean] partners, the main issue they were facing with getting more information into North Korea was that they had to buy all the flash drives at retail cost," Jim explains.

The solution seemed relatively straightforward. As Jim says, "everybody basically in the Western world has a flash drive that they're not using that's just laying around."

According to Jim, Flash Drives for Freedom kicked off "a grassroots movement." The USBs come streaming from everybody, everywhere: "Probably 50 different countries and we've gotten them from probably every [US] state."

Sometimes, he says, it might be retirees or children sending one or two drives in the mail. A university, church or school might organise a drive to collect USBs and post them to Flash Drives for Freedom. Then there are tech companies in Silicon Valley that donate hundreds at a time.

"We can use every size, we really can repurpose them and find a way to make them work," Jim says.

Most North Koreans don't have personal computers, Jim explains, but instead they view the content of the USBs on cheap Chinese battery-operated portable DVD players called "notels." These devices have SD and a USB ports.

While Jim admits it's hard to gauge the impact of the program, occasionally he hears anecdotes. Jim points to a grainy video of North Koreans secretly watching contraband material (which you can watch above).

"The windows are covered with blankets, they're huddled in a dark room watching this contraband film," Jim says.

When I ask about the specifics of how the USBs get from China into North Korea, Jim is understandably careful - numerous North Koreans are imprisoned and executed every year.

"I can't give all the details," Jim says, "[but] it all happens along the Chinese border. There are people that do this for a living, that go back and forth.

"We're working primarily within the black market economy that's already existing openly in North Korea," he says.

Jim denies that Flash Drives for Freedom is putting people in danger by giving them content that's viewed as illegal by the North Korean Government. (It's the information that's illegal, not the actual drives.)

"The people know the risk that they're running when they're seeking this out. They're personally looking for it," he says.

If you've got flash drives lying around, donate them here.

Want to know more? Watch a moving video of North Korean defector Jung Gwang-il telling his story and explaining why flash drives have the power "to bring freedom to my country." He founded the organisation, No Chain, which works closely with Flash Drives for Freedom. (Video has subtitles)

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