Cybersecurity

Commentary: We Hacked North Korea With Balloons and USB Drives

North Korean defectors and human right activists release balloons due to fly to the North, carrying leaflets to condemn North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korean defectors and human right activists release balloons due to fly to the North, carrying leaflets to condemn North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. // Ahn Young-joon/AP

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 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 tireless 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.”

We chose to ignore this inflammatory rhetoric, which is typical of the regime, and pressed on. The morning of the launch, however, the North Korean government issued a second warning, this time from the Command of the Korean People’s Army, saying the launch "reminds one of a puppy knowing no fear of a tiger." This threat was taken so seriously by the South Korean government that its security forces mobilized to stop us.

On the day of the launch, 300 uniformed South Korean policemen swarmed the site, preventing us from achieving our goal. Park attempted to drive to another launch site, but he was stopped and taken to a nearby police station, where he was detained for six hours and then released. The episode underlined how many South Koreans regard the human rights struggle in the North as merely a distraction and an annoyance.

So what do these balloons carry that is dangerous enough to the North Korean government to warrant an attempted assassination and multiple public death threats to an international NGO? All of the goods carried by the balloons are illegal inside North Korea, but the regime consistently names one item in their threats to Park and his group: the pro-democracy leaflets.

The North Korean government dreads subversive information. For decades, the regime has controlled all information entering the country. While the government still has a monopoly over information dissemination within North Korea, cracks are beginning to show. Many North Koreans now have access to smuggled DVDs and USBs loaded with videos. They are seeing the world outside the North, and it doesn’t match up to the dictatorship’s lies and propaganda. Shows such as Desperate Housewives and The Mentalist, and films like Bad Boys, all of which defectors tell us are very popular in the North, provide a wildly different alternative to their daily lives.

Slowly, piercing the information blockade is helping to expose the fallibility of the North Korean state. Kim Jong Un’s government, just like the governments of his father and grandfather before him, is engineered to make North Korean citizens dependent on the state for everything. However, the famine of the 1990s, in which over a million North Koreans starved to death, forced people to depend less on the state for survival. The black market, fueled by smuggling, began to gain momentum.

Smuggling is the only way to bring information and technology to the North Korean people, and it is punishable by death. DVDs, USBs, and even laptops are making their way over the Chinese border into the hands of North Koreans, helped along by NGOs based in South Korea. Some groups engage directly in smuggling activities to provide information and equipment, others use short- and medium-wave radio broadcasts, and Park Sang Hak uses balloons and other creative methods of sending help over the border.

South Koreans and North Korean defectors hold a banner that reads, "Pyongyang citizens living in the South and the North, Let's unite, break Kim Jong Un's three generations hereditary regime and move a date up for recovery of Pyongyang." (Reuters/Lee Jae-Won)

These groups, however, are in the midst of a crisis. Finding support, especially for the more aggressive methods, is difficult within South Korea, as South Koreans fear antagonizing their distant relatives in the North. Until this year, the U.S. government provided support for these groups through the National Endowment for Democracy and the State Department’s DRL programs. The majority of this funding however, has been cut in the last year. A remarkable opportunity now exists, given the funding gap, to build peer-to-peer networks between Korean defectors and worldwide allies willing to stand against despotism. Radio transmission is especially costly, and one group we visited in Seoul won’t be able to afford to produce its programming after March of this year.

These groups struggle in silence as the international press creates a media circus around Dennis Rodman and his “friendship” with Kim Jong Un. His antics feed into the popular perception of the regime as a bizarre place where bad things happen as opposed to one of the world’s cruelest tyrannies, being challenged by a handful of civil society organizations with combined annual budgets totaling no more than $1 million. And the North, with its nuclear hardware, concentration camps, and totalitarian control over its people, is being challenged with freedom of expression and the power of ideas. In the end, we believe ideas will win.

Alexander Lloyd is managing director of Accelerator Ventures and Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. They co-founded the Disrupt North Korea Project, a non-violent action program designed to hack the North Korean regime.

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