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We Hacked North Korea With Balloons and USB Drives

An airborne challenge to Kim Jong Un’s information monopoly
Former North Korean defectors release balloons containing one-dollar banknotes, radios, CDs and leaflets denouncing the North Korean regime near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, on January 15. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

PAJU, South Korea — At the base of a mountain almost two miles from the North Korean border, the giant helium balloons slowly float upward, borne by a stiff, cold wind. These are not balloons in the conventional sense—the transparent, cylindrical tubes covered in colorful Korean script are more than 20 feet in length and each carries three large bundles wrapped in plastic. The characters painted on one of the balloons reads, “The regime must fall.”

The launch site is at the confluence of the Imjin and Han Rivers, which form the border with North Korea. From here, it’s possible to see the Potemkin village constructed on the shores across the river. The picturesque agrarian hamlet is really just a series of uninhabited sham structures, which contrast sharply with the bustle and industry of the South Korean side. Using binoculars we can see people “walking” back and forth and pretending to till the land despite below-freezing temperatures.

We’re here to hack the North Korean government’s monopoly of information above the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean dictatorship continues to be one of the most totalitarian regimes on the planet. While other regimes oppress their dissidents and censor the Internet, North Korea has no dissidents and no connection to the outside world. It has no Internet. The Kim family rules with absolute authority, arbitrarily imprisoning or executing anyone who stands in their way. The regime goes even further; not only is the offender imprisoned, but entire generations of his family are also sent to the gulags. The embargo of information into and out of the country has forced human rights groups to be creative in their methods of reaching North Korean citizens.

The Democracy Report

The balloons rise and drift toward the border dividing democratic South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian regime in the north. Each balloon carries a bundle containing DVDs, USBs, transistor radios, and tens of thousands of leaflets printed with information about the world outside North Korea. Once the balloons travel far enough north, a small timer will break open the sturdy plastic bags and shower the contents of the packages over the countryside. The text printed on the leaflets is changed from launch to launch; the leaflets we are using today contain a cartoon depicting Kim Jong Un’s execution of his uncle as well as pro-democracy and human rights literature. 

In preparation for Wednesday’s launch, a group of men and women, most defectors themselves, put together the precious cargo the balloons carry. This group is part of an organization called Fighters for a Free North Korea, and their leader is Park Sang Hak, a defector and son of a former North Korean spy who escaped 15 years ago by swimming across the river. Park has since dedicated his life to fighting for freedom in his homeland. That dedication has earned him awards (he received the Human Rights Foundation’s Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent last year) as well as attempts on his life.

In 2011, a North Korean assassin traveled to Seoul and tried to kill Park with a poison needle hidden inside a pen. The South Korean National Intelligence Service found out about the plan to murder Park, whom the Pyongyang regime has designated “Enemy Zero,” and tipped him off before he went to meet the would-be killer.

Park Sang Hak, a North Korean defector and chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, releases a helium balloon filled with anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets near the border with North Korea, in 2008. (Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak)

Undaunted, Park continued his efforts to offer support to the countrymen he had left behind. He realized that although the government tightly controlled everything that came into the country on the ground, the sky remained free. Park decided this would be his way of smuggling his message across the border.

This is how we found ourselves at a mountaintop an hour and a half outside of Seoul in 15-degree-Fahrenheit weather. We had been preparing for weeks in secret in order to stay off the South Korean government’s radar, after our previous launch attempt was thwarted by South Korean police forces.

In June of last year, at a different border site, word got out about the effort, which was to be the first time that a foreign NGO had collaborated directly in such an activity. Two days before the anticipated launch date, the North Korean government issued a warning through its propaganda outlet, threatening, “[I]f you so much as haunt [the launch site] with your presence and act as human shields for refugees who have already been sentenced to death, we will kill you.”

Presented by

Thor Halvorssen and Alexander Lloyd


Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Alexander Lloyd is managing director of the venture capital firm Accelerator Ventures.

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