North Korea’s Digital Underground

To smuggle facts into or out of North Korea is to risk imprisonment and even execution. Yet today, aided by a half-dozen stealthy media organizations outside the country, citizen-journalists are using technologies new and old to break the regime’s iron grip on information. Will the truth set a nation free?

Without a doubt, North Korea Intellectual Solidarity is the organization that has thought most about the role of technology. Its reporters are equipped with South Korean, rather than Chinese, cell phones, because NKIS technicians believe their encoded protocol is more difficult for North Korean intelligence to track. Not content to buy voice and video recorders off the shelf, NKIS uses customized devices, whose battery life and recording times are reputedly superior. My request to see one is (pleasantly) denied.

The group’s technical emphasis comes from its founder, Kim Heung Kwang. Kim was a professor of computer science at Hamhung University of Technology, a branch of the North Korean military. He looks a decade older than his 51 years, and has the haggard mien of someone who has fallen afoul of the authorities. In North Korea, he was training students for careers as engineers or soldiers. The best were recruited by the army’s elite hacker units, which reportedly disrupted South Korean and U.S. government Web sites in 2009. Two of his former students defected recently, and now work with him at NKIS.

Kim’s facility with technology got him into trouble in the North. “I had several e-books, which I got from China. The national security force arrested me for possessing them,” he tells me. The books were pretty innocuous fare, mostly motivational titles like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. “These weren’t anti-regime books, so why was this a crime?” he asks bitterly. “I saw that there wasn’t any hope for the North Korean system. I started to dream of going somewhere where I had the freedom to read what I wanted.” Kim defected in 2003 and arrived in South Korea a year later.

One of the first things Kim’s team created was an e-book called Window to the Global Village. A 204-page primer about South Korea and the rest of the world, it is loaded with embedded video, music, photos, and voice files. The three-gigabyte thumb drive had extra space, so he added a math program for children, a fortune-telling program for adults, games, and a bunch of computer tools.

Kim reaches into his pocket and shows me one of his specially programmed thumb drives. It will read “empty” when it is plugged in to a computer, just in case it falls into the hands of a border guard. When the savvy (or unsuspecting) user double-clicks on the logo, the program launches, and installs a file called “Welcome World” on his computer. (Some funders object to these surreptitious distribution techniques, fearing they might endanger innocent people.) Then there is the self-destruct option. “We set it to erase itself after a month, or after a certain number of downloads,” Kim explains, holding up one of the thumb drives. “Even if you are caught reading the e-book, the national security police won’t be able to trace it. After all, you can say that when you got it, you thought it was empty!”

Given the grip that the North Korean regime retains on information, the mission of these subversive organizations can seem quixotic—an act of faith as much as it is journalism. Of all the narrowcasters tenaciously targeting North Korea, the narrowest is Shiokaze (“sea breeze,” in Japanese), a station created by the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea, or COMJAN. In the late 1970s, North Korea began randomly abducting Japanese citizens from beaches and parks, and holding them captive in Pyongyang for the next quarter century. Their families assumed they had either eloped or died. Precisely why they were abducted has never been clear, although it most likely has to do with training spies. Even the exact number of abductees isn’t known. At a 2002 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Kim Jong Il confessed to having taken 13 Japanese, five of whom were still alive (and were soon returned to Japan). The Japanese government insists that at least 17 were kidnapped, and refuses to believe that the others have died. From the third floor of a less-than-spiffy apartment building near Tokyo’s Iidabashi railway station, COMJAN advocates on behalf of abductees not officially recognized by the Japanese government, and hopes to reach them with its radio broadcasts.

On the day I visit, Araki Kazuhiro, a professor of Korean studies and COMJAN’s chairman, is sitting in the tiny, makeshift plywood radio booth, reading news about recent nuclear-arms negotiations for one of Shiokaze’s twice-daily shortwave broadcasts. After he finishes, we sit at a conference table and have some tea. Araki says he believes that more than 400 Japanese have been abducted, and that the kidnappings continue even today. As with many of the other shortwave broadcasts, North Korea often jams Shiokaze’s signal. Shiokaze regularly switches frequencies, but the North quickly locates the new one, and jams it.

While the Daily NK and other outlets occasionally interact with their listeners, Shiokaze operates in a virtual void. Other than the five Japanese released in 2002, no abductee has ever been heard from. I reluctantly broach the subject: Does Araki have any evidence that anyone in North Korea—abductee or not—has ever heard the broadcast?

Araki and his producer consult with each other. “Well, we once heard about a high-school student who was able to pick up the program in Pyongyang, but we’re not sure about that,” he says. After more tea, Araki excuses himself and returns to the booth. It is almost noon, and he needs to finish one more Korean-language segment before the afternoon program is beamed across the sea and into North Korea.

Presented by

Robert S. Boynton directs New York University’s Literary Reportage concentration and is writing a book about the Cold War in Northeast Asia.

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