North Korean defectors are ramping up a campaign to covertly flood their former homeland with flashdrives and balloons full of news bulletins and documentaries to counter state propaganda as tensions escalate with the US over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missiles programmes.
Assisted by the US-based, and privately funded, Human Right Foundation (HSF) their ultimate aim is to bring down the pariah regime from within, by engaging directly with North Koreans, providing illicit information that will influence mindsets and fuel dissatisfaction.
Up to 10,000 flashdrives were successfully smuggled into North Korea as Pyongyang’s relations sharply deteriorated over the past year, said Alex Gladstein, HSF’s chief strategy officer.
But with traditional military and diplomatic strategies apparently failing to temper the threat of nuclear conflict, activists are now working furiously to reach a target of 100,000 by mid-2018.
Waging this information war was “the only way to inspire change,” argued Mr Gladstein. “So it’s really like a third way, and this is to liberate minds.
We’re creating little windows to the outside world so that the North Korean people can make decisions for themselves about what they want to do with their lives,” he said.
He revealed that the appetite for information within the hermit kingdom had considerably shifted in recent months from popular films such as Titanic, South Korean soap operas and megastar Psy’s music videos more towards news, documentaries and educational material including Wikipedia entries.
The content is chosen by defector focus groups, said Mr Gladstein.
The regime’s visceral reaction towards them, calling them “scum” and “enemy zero” showed how much it feared outside news, he argued.
The USB-sticks are smuggled at great risk via towns on China’s border with North Korea, where the black market for goods and information is flourishing.
The group’s “Flashdrives for Freedom” project has already smuggled in 2 million hours worth of footage, and 48m hours of reading material, reaching an estimated 1.1 million North Koreans over the past few years.
It first began its operations in the simplest of ways in 2013, by floating hydrogen balloons packed with DVDs, dollar bills and leaflets from the northern town of Paju across the militarised border.
Balloon projects are ongoing during seasons with favourable winds but the group’s focus has shifted mainly to flashdrives which have dramatically increased the amount of content that can be sent in.
Their approach was implicitly endorsed in November by Thae Yong-ho, once number two at North Korea’s embassy in London until he became the regime’s highest profile defector in 2016.
On a visit to Washington, Mr Thae urged legislators on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to strike the “Achilles heel” of dictator Kim Jong-un by strategically targeting his population with tailor-made information that made them question their dire living conditions.
By exploiting the increasing penetration of free-market capitalism, North Korean citizens could be encouraged to challenge their brainwashing from infancy that the Kim family were divine rulers protecting them from the outside world, Mr Thae argued.
“We cannot change the policy of terror of the Kim Jong-un regime. But we can educate the North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information,” he said.
Evidence of the increasing foreign influence on the secretive regime was borne out in the recent daring defection of a young soldier who was shot multiple times as he ran across the border.
When he woke from life-saving surgery he professed a liking for South Korean girl bands.
While the impact of the information campaign is hard to measure, Mr Gladstein said the group hoped to influence North Korea’s business and military elite to foster change that would ultimately help release the quarter million prisoners languishing in labour camps.
“Given the history of Eastern Europe, I hope that people can think about the potential of information rather than reckless conflict and provocation and totally failed diplomacy,” he said.
“There is nothing the government can do with information, they can’t manipulate it. It’s a very powerful thing.”