North Korean defectors have successfully shipped in “several thousand” USB sticks containing banned content like South Korean soaps, Hollywood films, and global news.
The goal is to spread information about the outside world to North Koreans, who have limited access to the open internet and telecommunications.
The project is the result of the “Flash Drives for Freedom” campaign by the Human Rights Foundation, a non-profit organisation which has been asking people to donate spare flash drives to send to North Korea.
Chief strategy officer, Alex Gladstein, said the foundation has received more than 10,000 drives in the last 12 months, and is in the process of handing them to groups of North Korean defectors operating out of South Korea.
“Several thousand have been delivered into the DPRK [North Korea] so far,” Goldstein told Business Insider. “We’d like to send 50,000 this year.”
The groups decide what content to put on the sticks, which might hold up to 20GB, then smuggle them in by drone and by foot.
They are then picked up by dealers who copy the information onto smaller drives and sell those on to locals for a profit.
North Koreans can then watch the files on common, portable DVD players called Notels and cheap Chinese smartphones with USB ports. PC ownership is rare.
A similar “offline internet” operates in Cuba, although the risk in North Korea is much higher. “The whole thing is a market,” said Gladstein.
Is it working? Gladstein said it’s difficult to measure the effect of spreading information but believes there are “hints of change”.
The bulk of North Korean defections are due to the practical shortage of food rather than political ideals. “Lately there are more defections for political reasons, and not economic reasons,” he said.
Gladstein pointed to the recent defection North Korea’s ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong Ho. And there were also reports of anti-Kim Jong-un fliers appearing in Pyongyong last year.
It would take, he estimated, around one million USB sticks to educate a significant chunk of the North Korean population. There are around 25 million people living in the country, and Gladstein believes about 30% have any idea that the outside world is better off.