On a cloudy, moon­less night some­where in north­east China, three men creep through a stand of Ja­panese Clethra trees. They carry no torches 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 of­f­cials made phone calls telling sub­or­di­nates to aban­don their posts for a few hours. Af­ter sev­eral 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 drawn in the dark­ness. Soon af­ter, a com­pact man dressed in only a hoodie and boxer shorts wades out of the waisthigh 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 black­mar­ket data: 200 Sandisk USB drives and 300 mi­cro SD cards, each packed with 16GB of videos such as 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 $1300 in cash. The man in the hoodie slings the bag of dig­i­tal con­tra­band over his shoul­der. Then he says good­bye 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 Cen­tre (NKSC) and its 46-year-old founder, Kang Chol-hwan. Over the past few years, Kang’s or­gan­i­sa­tion has be­come the largest in a move­ment of po­lit­i­cal groups who rou­tinely smug­gle data into North Korea. NKSC alone an­nu­ally in­jects about 3000 USB drives flled 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 flled 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,” says Kang. “They’re just peo­ple hav­ing af­fairs or what­ever. They see the leisure, the free­dom. They re­alise that this isn’t the en­emy; it’s what they want for them­selves. It can­cels out ev­ery­thing they’ve been told. When that hap­pens, it starts a revo­lu­tion in their mind.” We frst meet Kang in a con­fer­ence room of his of­fce 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 ques­tions in a soft voice and main­tains a look of calm be­muse­ment. But sev­eral NKSC staffers later say his quiet de­meanour 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 confdes.) 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 fnan­cial 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 US 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 one-for­ti­eth the size of its south­ern neigh­bour. Only 16 per cent of house­holds have ad­e­quate ac­cess to food, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study by the World Food Pro­gram, stunt­ing growth in 28 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. In some ar­eas of the coun­try, up to 40 per cent of chil­dren un­der the age of fve are af­fected. The out­comes are men­tal as well as phys­i­cal. A 2008 study by the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Coun­cil found a quar­ter of North Korean mil­i­tary con­scripts are dis­qual­ifed 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 199 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,” says Cha. With­out it, North Korea would face the same threats as ev­ery dic­ta­tor­ship, such as in­ter­nal coups 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, such as 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 fsh­er­men mid-river. An NKSC op­er­a­tive showed us a video in which he crawls un­der a bor­der fence, walks into the Tu­men River and throws two tyres to the op­po­site bank. Each one was flled with South Korean Choco Pies, Chi­nese cig­a­rettes and USB sticks loaded with movies such as 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 flm 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 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 py­ja­mas, 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 – fghters for a Free North Korea loads up 10-me­tre bal­loons that float into the coun­try and rain down pam­phlets, US dol­lar bills, and USB drives full of po­lit­i­cal ma­te­rial. North Korea In­tel­lec­tu­als Sol­i­dar­ity smug­gles in USBS flled 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 con­f­s­cate il­licit media. Kang’s NKSC, with its pop cul­tural of­fer­ings, cap­i­talises on North Korea’s flow­er­ing black mar­kets. The group’s smug­glers in­side the coun­try are mo­ti­vated by proft as much as pol­i­tics; a USB stick loaded with con­tra­band flms sells for more than a month’s food bud­get for most mid­dle­class North Korean fam­i­lies. A pack of hun­dreds rep­re­sents a small for­tune. “In North Korea a USB drive is like gold,” says one NKSC smug­gler. For Kang, that makes each of those cov­eted flash drives a self-pro­pelled weapon in a free-mar­ket in­for­ma­tion in­sur­gency. “Right now, per­haps 30 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in North Korea knows about the out­side world,” says Kang. “If you reach 50 per cent, that’s enough peo­ple to start mak­ing de­mands, to start mak­ing changes.” And if that en­light­ened au­di­ence reaches 80 per cent? Or 90 per cent? Kang leans for­ward. “Then there’s no way the North Korean gov­ern­ment, in its cur­rent form, could con­tinue to ex­ist.” Kang Chol-hwan was nine years old when his grand­fa­ther, a high-level gov­ern­ment of­f­cial 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 re-ed­u­ca­tion camp. The gov­ern­ment con­f­s­cated 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 favourite trop­i­cal fsh. Soon af­ter the fam­ily’s ar­rival at the Yodok con­cen­tra­tion camp in the coun­try’s north­east­ern moun­tains, the fsh 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 mem­o­ri­sa­tion of com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda – and slave labour in the camp’s corn­felds, 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 later de­scribed. “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 learnt 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 sub-zero 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 post-prison life as a de­liv­ery man in the western county of Pyung­sung, Kang har­boured few il­lu­sions about the cor­rup­tion of the North Korean regime. But it wasn’t un­til three years later that he ac­cessed the in­for­ma­tion that crys­tallised 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 learnt how to dis­as­sem­ble its case and re­move the fla­ment that hard­wired it to of­f­cial 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 frst I didn’t be­lieve it,” he says. “Then I started to but felt guilty. Even­tu­ally, I couldn’t stop lis­ten­ing.” Un­der their blan­ket, they re­learnt 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 Ceaus­escu, a close friend of Kim Il-sung. They heard Michael Jack­son songs, even learn­ing lyrics and singing along. “Lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio gave us the words we needed to ex­press our dis­sat­is­fac­tion,” Kang would later write. “Ev­ery pro­gram, 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 labour camp. Pos­ing as a busi­ness­man, he bribed bor­der guards on the Yalu River and es­caped to Dalian, China, and fnally 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 labour camps,” says Georgetown’s Cha, who ad­vised Bush on North Korea. “But Kang’s book put a name 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 tell North Kore­ans about the world. That year, a Chris­tian ra­dio sta­tion do­nated 5000 por­ta­ble wind-up ra­dios to Kang’s new or­gan­i­sa­tion. 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 fling a spe­cial re­quest through the United Na­tions for in­for­ma­tion about Mi-ho’s where­abouts, Kang hasn’t been able to fnd 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,” says Choi. “It must be in­cred­i­bly dif­fcult to know that what you’re do­ing can hurt the peo­ple you love.” When we frst 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.”

Yeonmi Park’s fam­ily paid about 3000 North Korean won ($4.33) for a pack of DVDS that con­tained a boot­leg of Titanic. In the early 2000s, she re­mem­bers, that was the cost of sev­eral ki­los of rice in her home city of Hye­san – a sig­nif­cant sac­ri­fce in a starv­ing coun­try. But of all the tween girls who be­came ob­sessed with the star-crossed ro­mance of Jack and Rose, Park was one of the very few who saw it as down­right rev­o­lu­tion­ary. “In North Korea, they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he’s dy­ing for a girl he loves,” she says. “I thought, how can any­one make this and not be killed?” Titanic was hardly Park’s only for­eign-video ex­pe­ri­ence. Her mother had sold DVDS; some of Park’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of wak­ing to the grunts and shouts of her fa­ther watch­ing Amer­i­can WWF wrestling. Park loved Cin­derella, Snow White and Pretty Woman. The fam­ily would put its

tapes and discs in a plas­tic bag and bury it be­neath a pot­ted plant to hide it from the po­lice. But of all those illegal en­coun­ters with for­eign cul­ture, Titanic was some­how the flm that made Park ask her­self ques­tions about free­dom and the out­side world. “It made me feel like some­thing was off with our sys­tem,” she says in flu­ent English, which she per­fected by watch­ing the en­tire run of Friends dozens of times. Park es­caped from North Korea in 2007. Now a 21-year-old ac­tivist based in Seoul, she’s part of what’s known in Korea as the jang­madang sedae: the black-mar­ket gen­er­a­tion. Dur­ing a famine in the North in the mid-1990s, the Kim regime be­gan to tol­er­ate illegal trade be­cause it was the only op­tion to feed a starv­ing pop­u­la­tion. Since then, black-mar­ket com­merce has been nearly im­pos­si­ble to stamp out. And some of the hottest com­modi­ties – par­tic­u­larly for young peo­ple who don’t even re­mem­ber a North Korea be­fore that un­der­ground trade ex­isted – have been for­eign mu­sic and movies, along with the Chi­nese-made gad­gets to play them. A 2010 study by the US Broad­cast­ing Board of Gover­nors found that 74 per cent of North Kore­ans have ac­cess to a TV and 46 per cent can ac­cess a DVD player. Park says nearly all of her friends in Hye­san had seen a for­eign flm or TV show. As a re­sult, her gen­er­a­tion is the frst to have to square the Kim regime’s pro­pa­ganda with a key­hole view of the out­side world. A group called Lib­erty in North Korea, which works with young de­fec­tor refugees, fnds that many no longer be­lieve in cen­tral tenets of North Korea’s po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy, such as the coun­try’s su­pe­rior stan­dard of liv­ing or the god­like pow­ers of the Kim fam­ily. Even the regime is let­ting that sec­ond il­lu­sion slide, ad­mit­ting that Kim Jong-un has health is­sues – hardly the norm for heav­enly be­ings. Thanks to the flour­ish­ing black mar­ket, the jang­madang gen­er­a­tion’s tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced well be­yond ra­dios and DVDS. De­spite North Korea’s near-com­plete lack of in­ter­net ac­cess, there are close to 3.5 mil­lion PCS in the coun­try and 5 mil­lion tablets, ac­cord­ing to North Korea In­tel­lec­tu­als Sol­i­dar­ity. But per­haps the most im­por­tant piece of hard­ware in North Korea to­day is what’s known as a no­tel – a small, por­ta­ble video player sold for $60 to $100 and ca­pa­ble of han­dling mul­ti­ple for­mats. It has a screen, a recharge­able bat­tery to deal with fre­quent black­outs and, cru­cially, USB and SD card ports. In a sur­prise move in De­cem­ber, the North Korean gov­ern­ment le­galised the de­vices, per­haps as part of a bid to mod­ernise its pro­pa­ganda ma­chine, ac­cord­ing to Seoul-based news out­let Daily NK. The re­sult is mil­lions of ready cus­tomers for the USB sticks smug­gled across the Chi­nese bor­der. In one of North Korea’s bustling mar­kets, a buyer might qui­etly ask for some­thing “fun”, mean­ing for­eign, or “from the vil­lage be­low”, re­fer­ring to South Korea. The seller may lead him or her to a pri­vate place, of­ten some­one’s home, be­fore turn­ing over the goods. The for­eign data is then con­sumed on a no­tel among small, dis­creet groups of mostly young peo­ple, friends who en­ter into an un­spo­ken pact of break­ing the law to­gether so that no one can rat out any­one else. The Kim regime has re­sponded by crack­ing down. In late 2013, the gov­ern­ment re­port­edly ex­e­cuted 80 peo­ple across seven cities in a sin­gle day, many for traf­fick­ing in illegal media. In Fe­bru­ary last year, the Worker’s Party of Korea held its largest-ever con­fer­ence of pro­pa­gan­dists. Kim Jong-un him­self de­liv­ered an ad­dress call­ing for the party to “take the ini­tia­tive in launch­ing oper­a­tions to make the im­pe­ri­al­ist moves for ide­o­log­i­cal and cul­tural in­fil­tra­tion end in smoke” and to set up “mos­quito nets with two or three lay­ers to pre­vent cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy, which the en­emy is per­sis­tently at­tempt­ing to spread, from in­fil­trat­ing across our bor­der”. But stamp­ing out illegal media in North Korea has be­come an in­tractable prob­lem for the gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to So­keel Park, di­rec­tor of re­search and strat­egy for Lib­erty in North Korea. He com­pares it to the stub­born de­mand for illegal drugs in the US. “You could call it Kim Jong-un’s War on In­for­ma­tion,” he says. “But like a war on drugs – you can slow it down, in­crease the risks and pun­ish­ments, put more peo­ple in prison. The bribe costs will go up, but it’s still go­ing to hap­pen.” By his third year work­ing for Kim Jong-il’s thought po­lice, Kim He­ung-kwang says he could al­most sense the pres­ence of illegal data. Go­ing door-to-door with the task force as­signed to search out dig­i­tal con­tra­band in cit­i­zens’ homes, he re­mem­bers fnd­ing for­bid­den DVDS and play­ers hid­den un­der beds and in books with pages cut away to cre­ate hid­den com­part­ments. On one oc­ca­sion he caught a group of video watch­ers who had, in a panic, hid­den to­gether un­der a blan­ket in a closet. Early on, he found when he knocked on doors, guilty watch­ers would hur­riedly hide DVDS. So he’d turn off the power to the en­tire build­ing be­fore mak­ing his house calls, trap­ping discs in their play­ers. “I felt they were watch­ing rot­ten, cap­i­tal­ist ma­te­rial and ru­in­ing the juche men­tal­ity,” says Kim, re­fer­ring to the North Korean com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy. The short, be­spec­ta­cled man, sit­ting in his aus­tere Seoul of­fce, smiles wearily and crosses his legs with a pro­fes­so­rial air. “I felt jus­tifed to send these crim­i­nals away.” The DVD own­ers would cry and plead. They’d beg on their knees and pull on the sleeves of his uni­form, claim­ing they had just found the

“In North Korea, they taught us to die for the regime”

of­fend­ing media ly­ing in the street. Some­times he ac­cepted bribes and turned a blind eye. (“You could feel the out­side of the en­ve­lope be­tween your fin­gers and tell whether it was a lot of money,” he re­mem­bers.) But most of the data crim­i­nals he caught, he re­ported. Many were sen­tenced to months or years in prison camps. Kim had earned mem­ber­ship in the all-pow­er­ful Com­mu­nist Party through years of work help­ing to cre­ate North Korea’s own com­put­ers, in­clud­ing the Paek­tu­san mini­com­puter, named for the moun­tain where Kim Jong-il was said to have been born. As a com­puter science pro­fes­sor at Hamhung Univer­sity, he had even taught stu­dents who would go on to work for North Korea’s cy­ber­war­fare brigade, Unit 121 – the group sus­pected of the Sony breach – in the ba­sics of net­work­ing and op­er­a­tion sys­tems. Af­ter black mar­kets be­gan to spread, Kim was re­as­signed in 2000 to a mil­i­tary di­vi­sion that went door-to-door to search for con­tra­band media. “I loved it,” he says. “I had the power to go into homes and take these ma­te­ri­als and no one could even ques­tion me.” One of the perks of Kim’s po­si­tion, of course, was nearly infnite ac­cess to the media he con­fis­cated. He be­gan to watch the con­tra­band flms and TV shows and even loaned out his col­lec­tion to friends, who re­warded him with gifts like al­co­hol and meat. In 2002, Kim was given a PC, part of what he de­scribes as a se­cret aid ship­ment from South Korea. Its hard drive had been wiped. But us­ing foren­sic re­cov­ery soft­ware, Kim was able to re­assem­ble its deleted con­tents. They in­cluded 400 fles; flms, TV shows, and, most im­por­tant to his in­tel­lec­tual sen­si­bil­i­ties, ebooks. “You can’t imag­ine how ex­cited I was. I’d hit a gold mine.” These were what fnally trans­formed Kim’s think­ing. He re­mem­bers read­ing a Dale Carnegie self-help book and Alvin Tof­fler’s The Third Wave. But most in­flu­en­tial was a history book about Mid­dle Eastern dic­ta­tors, in­clud­ing the sto­ries of Sad­dam Hus­sein and Muam­mar Gaddaf, all friends of the Kim regime. “Read­ing about the crimes hap­pen­ing in these coun­tries, I be­gan to re­alise that those crimes were hap­pen­ing in my coun­try, too,” says Kim. “That was the start­ing point of the logic shift­ing in my brain. I be­gan to un­der­stand the na­ture of dic­ta­tor­ship.” Even then, Kim con­tin­ued bust­ing view­ers of the same for­eign media he now regularly watched. “I sent a lot of peo­ple away, but the karma soon came back to me,” he says. In 2003 he was ar­rested and taken to a de­ten­tion cen­tre; he’d been rat­ted out by one of the com­rades with whom he’d shared his se­cret store. Po­lice tor­tured him for a week, forc­ing him to write hun­dreds of pages of con­fes­sion un­der hot lights and pre­vent­ing him from sleep­ing by jab­bing his fore­head with a nee­dle. When they re­alised he had only dis­trib­uted ma­te­ri­als to a few friends, he was given a “le­nient” sen­tence – a year at a re-ed­u­ca­tion farm 65km out­side Hamhung. “I couldn’t un­der­stand why watch­ing a few for­eign flms should cost me a year of my life.” Af­ter the year of drudgery, Kim was re­leased and man­aged to bribe a bor­der guard to help him es­cape across the Tu­men. He made his way from China to Seoul, where he set up North Korea In­tel­lec­tu­als Sol­i­dar­ity. Kim’s strat­egy is much like Kang’s with NKSC, us­ing Chi­nese traders and smug­gler con­tacts. But Kim has only a hand­ful of full-time staffers. In­stead of ask­ing his North Korean con­tacts to wade across the Tu­men, he de­scribes throw­ing a rock tied to the end of a rope across the river. Smug­glers on the other side, he says, use it to pull across a plas­tic-wrapped bucket of USB drives. (He’s also ex­per­i­ment­ing with a three-man wa­ter bal­loon sling­shot that can cat­a­pult con­tra­band hun­dreds of me­tres past guards.) Un­like the pop-cul­tural pro­gram­ming prof­fered by Kang’s group, the con­tent on Kim’s drives in­cludes short ed­u­ca­tional doc­u­men­taries cre­ated by and star­ring Kim him­self. He ex­plains to North Kore­ans what democ­racy is, for in­stance, or sim­ply shows them what a book­store or the in­ter­net looks like. “When a North Korean watches an ac­tion movie with a chase scene in a gro­cery store, they want to slow it down to see what’s on the shelves,” he says. “I show them what they want to see – what I wanted to see when I was there.” Kim has also de­vel­oped what he calls stealth USB drives, de­signed to avoid de­tec­tion. To any ca­sual ob­server, the drive seems empty. But its con­tents reap­pear with a sim­ple trig­ger, the de­tails of which Kim asked not to be pub­li­cised. Not even the buyer would nec­es­sar­ily know that the USB con­tained illegal ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als, he says. In­stead, the fles would sim­ply ma­te­ri­alise one day, a spon­ta­neous gift Kim hopes will be as life-chang­ing as the hard drive whose won­drous con­tents he once dis­cov­ered. Kim de­nies that his work to­day is re­pen­tance for past sins as a mem­ber of Kim Jong-il’s data gestapo. He de­scribes the zealot of those years as a dif­fer­ent per­son. But when asked if he still feels guilt for the lives he wrecked, his po­lite aca­demic’s smile cracks. He mas­sages his tem­ples with one hand. Once, he says, he found a col­lec­tion of DVDS in the home of a sin­gle mother and her two sons. He could tell by the teen-ori­ented con­tent that they be­longed to the kids. The mother in­sisted the DVDS were hers, sac­ri­fic­ing her­self for her chil­dren. Kim says he was in­clined to let her go, but a hard-line col­league in­sisted she be re­ported, con­demn­ing her to a prison camp. “I wanted to for­give her,” says Kim. He pauses. “I still think about that fam­ily some­times.” On a Fri­day night in an NKSC con­fer­ence room, a young North Korean de­fec­tor who has asked to be called Yae-un is watch­ing a copy of the teen com­edy Su­per­bad. She would later ex­plain that she “had never seen a movie on that scale of filth­i­ness be­fore”, and she doesn’t hide her re­ac­tion; she spends most of the 113-minute bar­rage of ado­les­cent sex­ual angst and dick jokes

“Des­per­ate Housewives shows North Kore­ans that Amer­i­cans aren’t all im­pe­ri­al­ists”

cov­er­ing her face with the backs of her hands, as if to cool off her burn­ing cheeks. The movie was sup­posed to be screened for one of the de­fec­tor fo­cus groups that NKSC as­sem­bles to learn how North Kore­ans re­act to dif­fer­ent types of media, the bet­ter to smug­gle in the ma­te­ri­als with the most im­pact. But on this oc­ca­sion, all the North Kore­ans but Yae-un are busy or have can­celled at the last minute. So, like a Clockwork Or­ange par­ody, the fo­cus group has been re­duced to one North Korean, watched by us, an NKSC staffer, and vol­un­teers, as she re­acts to Jonah Hill and Michael Cera try­ing very hard to get laid. When the movie fnishes, Yae-un starts by list­ing the most as­ton­ish­ing el­e­ments from a North Korean per­spec­tive: the frank sex talk, gen­i­talia ref­er­ences, un­der­age drink­ing, cops crash­ing cars, teenage Mclovin shoot­ing a gun. All would be seen as in­de­scrib­ably alien, she says. “Even watch­ing it now, I fnd it vul­gar and shock­ing,” she says. “If I were still in North Korea, it would blow my mind.” So maybe NKSC should skip this one, sug­gests Rocky Kim, the staffer who or­gan­ised the screen­ing. “Maybe a doc­u­men­tary would be bet­ter?” he asks. Not at all. “I would vote to send it,” says Yae-un with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “It will blow their minds, but it’s not like they’ll ex­plode. They’ll re­cover.” Pre­dict­ing North Kore­ans’ re­ac­tions to for­eign media isn’t easy. The In­ter­view, for all the furore it elicited from the Kim regime, got an equally neg­a­tive re­ac­tion from North Kore­ans who saw it on the other side of the bor­der. Smug­gler Jung Kwang-il says con­tacts he spoke to in the coun­try were of­fended by its low pro­duc­tion val­ues and mock­ery of North Korean cul­ture. “They thought it was poorly made on pur­pose to mock North Korea, but I ex­plained it was just a bad movie,” he says. “They pre­fer The Hunger Games.” Other high-profle tac­tics by the North Korean free-in­for­ma­tion move­ment have back­fred in their own ways: a bal­loon launch by Fight­ers for a Free North Korea in 2014 prompted the North Korean mil­i­tary to fre an­ti­air­craft ma­chine guns over a bor­der vil­lage. And some bal­loons ended up stuck in the moun­tains, blown out to sea, or even back in South Korea. The pam­phlets they in­clude, ac­cord­ing to some ac­tivists, crit­i­cise the regime too di­rectly and are dis­missed by North Kore­ans as just another form of pro­pa­ganda. NKSC is more cau­tious about its con­tent. Ul­ti­mately, the group de­cided that Su­per­bad was too risqué for the North – so much for dick jokes de­feat­ing dic­ta­tors. But there’s a ques­tion that per­sisted through­out con­ver­sa­tions with the groups: how does North Korea get from an in­for­ma­tion revo­lu­tion to an ac­tual peo­ple-in-the-streets-and-top­pled-stat­ues revo­lu­tion? That ques­tion is posed to Kang Chol-hwan while we sit in his of­fce one snowy af­ter­noon, our last day in Korea. He ad­mits there’s not a sim­ple an­swer, but he of­fers a few sce­nar­ios he con­sid­ers plau­si­ble: the gov­ern­ment, for in­stance, could sense the dis­con­nect be­tween its pro­pa­ganda and the peo­ple’s for­eign-media ed­u­ca­tion and launch its own re­forms, the kind of grad­ual open­ing that took place in Rus­sia and China. Or a dis­il­lu­sioned pop­u­lace could be­gin de­fect­ing en masse, forc­ing a bor­der con­trol cri­sis. Or some spark, like the self-im­mo­la­tion of Tu­nisian street ven­dor Mo­hammed Bouaz­izi, could co­a­lesce dis­il­lu­sioned North Kore­ans into their own Arab Spring, a full-scale grass­roots upris­ing. But then Kang sur­prises by ad­mit­ting that all those sce­nar­ios are un­likely; the Kim regime is too blind and stub­born to ini­ti­ate its own re­forms, he says, and its to­tal­i­tar­ian grip may be too tight for a bot­tomup revo­lu­tion. He puts his high­est hopes in­stead in another sce­nario: that NKSC’S for­eign heresy could pen­e­trate the gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary’s mid­dle ranks and even their elite, erod­ing the ide­ol­ogy of the Com­mu­nist Party it­self and frac­tur­ing Kim Jong-un’s power base from within. A minute later, how­ever, Kang sud­denly flips back to his ear­lier op­ti­mism; he pre­dicts that, thanks in part to his in­for­ma­tion strat­egy, North Korea’s dic­ta­tor­ship will end within a decade. “They’re al­ready crack­ing,” he says. “In less than 10 years, I’ll be able to freely go in and out.” That nakedly ide­al­is­tic state­ment, be­yond its tinge of wish­ful think­ing, seems to re­veal some­thing new about how Kang sees his goal. In spite of all his child­hood hor­rors, he wants to trans­form North Korea not sim­ply into a na­tion that will let his coun­try­men go free, but one that will let him back in; he wants to go home again. And whether his smug­gling tac­tics suc­ceed or fail, he’ll con­tinue to send his USB thumb drives into North Korea, like of­fer­ings to a mute idol, be­cause it’s the best plan he’s got. “I have no di­rect power against the North Korean gov­ern­ment,” he ad­mits un­prompted, his face blank. Out­side the win­dow, it’s get­ting dark and the snow is still fall­ing. A po­lar vor­tex has pushed Siberian air south­ward, bring­ing win­ter winds down the Korean Penin­sula ear­lier than most years. And as cold as it is in Seoul, it’s far colder 240km north, in the prison camps where Kang spent his child­hood and where his sis­ter may still be to­day. “This is the best way – the only way for me – to open North Korea,” Kang fnally says. “Ev­ery day un­til then is a de­lay to see­ing my fam­ily again.”




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