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Best Defense

Time to use drones to deliver USBs to get more information into North Korea?

Today, substantial numbers of North Koreans are willing and able to access outside media despite harsh punishments if detected by the authorities.



By Yonho Kim
Best Defense guest columnist

Now that a bill to fight the North Korean regime’s domestic stranglehold on information has been introduced in the House, it is time for the United States to design an upgraded strategy to effectively win the hearts and minds of the North Korean people and educate them through the latest breakthroughs in media technologies.

Today, substantial numbers of North Koreans are willing and able to access outside media despite harsh punishments if detected by the authorities. In addition, thanks to the flourishing black market and technological developments, the means of access to outside media have advanced beyond TVs, radios, and DVDs. Even without Internet access, PCs, tablets, and Notels — small, portable video players made in China — have become very popular among North Koreans who want to watch foreign films and TV shows. In North Korea’s fast developing media environment, the growing popularity of South Korean pop culture throughout the world, often referred to as “the Korean Wave,” has easily found its way into the communist country.

But without access to the internet, how can North Koreans get access to digital content? The answer to this question comes in the form of an ever-increasing number of USB drives loaded with foreign content, including movies, music, and eBooks, which are continuously smuggled across the Chinese border and easily made available on the black market. Activist groups, mostly led by North Korean defectors in South Korea, have routinely smuggled high-tech data into North Korea, through low-tech means, such as trucks, simple balloons, and hand deliveries. For example, USB drives are stashed in Chinese cargo trucks entering North Korea or passed over from tourist boats that meet with fishermen mid-river. Large balloons with USB drives, leaflets, and US dollar bills are also sent across the border from South Korea.

However, the existing smuggling tactics are risky or politically controversial. The smugglers employed by activist groups are exposed to risk, especially when North Korean authorities tighten border control and crackdown on the illegal smuggling activities. A balloon launch in October 2014 prompted the North Korean military to fire anti-aircraft machine guns over a border village in an attempt to shoot down the balloons. Those living close to the border as well as liberal activists in South Korea strongly opposed the launches, which they argue put the residents in the line of fire. Moreover, few of the leaflets and USB drives dropped from the balloons are believed to actually reach the North Korean people beyond the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Delivering USBs with drones is a high-tech alternative to traditional smuggling tactics and requires no risk to those smuggling digital media into the country. Contacts inside North Korea have only to wait at a pre-arranged place for a nighttime drop-off. However, the high cost associated with flying drones makes it impractical for all but a few groups to employ this option. To enable this potentially very effective method of information dispersion to succeed, strong financial and technical support is needed.

Cell phones are another potential method of facilitating the flow of information into North Korea. Given the fact that there are around three million legal cell phone users, more than 10 percent of the country’s population, in North Korea, the use of cell phones to spread information has significant potential for success. Of course, ordinary North Korean subscribers are not allowed to make international calls let alone access the Internet; even simple game application programs on cell phones are built-in or manually installed at government-licensed shops, rather than downloadable. Nevertheless, it is still within the ability of state issued phones to pick up mobile signals from across the border. Indeed, some North Koreans near the Demilitarized Zone are believed to utilize South Korean mobile services.

Still, there are challenges to this option. Depending on the cellular network technologies employed, the cell phone users may have to unlock their phones with new SIM cards which may not be easily available to ordinary North Koreans. Also, building high-power cell towers for North Koreans along the border could be politically and legally controversial in South Korea. An alternative option may be to fly drones functioning as a flying miniature version of a base transceiver station, into North Korea. And, of course, the regime will try to jam the signals and North Koreans will have to take the risk of facing harsh punishments if caught by the security agents.

Though radio is a traditional and low-tech means of spreading information, it is still a very effective tool for providing North Koreans with real-time outside news that the content on USB drives cannot cover. Since the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 went into effect, the United States has been focusing on increasing the quantity of uncensored information pumped into the North: expanding broadcast time of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Now that the two U.S. government-funded networks cover the prime time slot — 8 p.m. through 4 a.m. — on AM for listening to banned foreign broadcast in North Korea, more resources and manpower should be allocated to the programming itself to increase listenership.

First, we should continue to invest in programming aimed at the second-tier leadership in the North, the existing main target audience who are well-off and educated enough to consistently seek quality news from foreign broadcasts. This elite group understands the fundamental problems of the Kim regime and is interested in the outside world’s views on their country. And yet, they are so self-respecting a group that a subtle approach with quality content is needed.

Second, increasing listenership north of the DMZ requires a blend of news, information and entertainment, rather than the current news-heavy radio approach being used to reach North Korean listeners. According to surveys of North Korean defectors in China and South Korea, ordinary North Korean listeners favor foreign entertainment (especially Korean), such as popular music, stories of North Korean defectors’ settlement in South Korea, and South Korea’s politics, economy, and culture. Everyday economic life in Seoul and New York would be another popular topic among North Koreans who are actively engaging in the burgeoning black market in the communist country. Providing a larger variety of formats, including call-in shows, drama serials, as well as hiring defectors as reporters are all options worth considering for increasing North Korean listenership.

Third, TV broadcasts have to be seriously considered as a new media tool. TV is a natural next step of U.S. international broadcasting for the North Koreans who are increasingly exposed to foreign video materials. Although satellite TV is not a practical option in the heavily surveilled country, those living in the border areas are able to access foreign television shows. Imagine a TV scene where a defector reporter walks through the streets of New York showing off the American lifestyle, everything from ordering a piece of New York style pizza, to buying a ticket for a Yankees game to using an ATM. It would convey a much larger message to the viewers than just radio reporting. A picture is worth a thousand words. Close cooperation with South Korea would certainly be necessary for such a project to succeed.

Yonho Kim is Senior Researcher of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and manages projects on the North Korean political economy. He is the author of Cell Phones in North Korea: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution? Prior to joining USKI, he worked for the Korean Services of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia for 12 years where he focused on developments in and around North Korea and US-ROK alliance issue. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in International Relations from Seoul National University and an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Photo credit: Bakó Gábor/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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