For many moviegoers, James Cameron's Oscar-winning "Titanic" was a moving moment in cinema history. For one viewer in North Korea, the blockbuster movie became the life-changing reason to escape her country’s oppressive government.
Addressing a group of about 100 Silicon Valley designers, coders, hackers and students gathered in San Francisco for Hack North Korea, Park Yeon-mi, 20, a North Korean defector, detailed the important role Jack and Rose played in her decision to embark on a dangerous journey to escape North Korea. After watching the James Cameron classic, Park says she realized there were things worth dying for other than her country.
In 2007, Park and her parents began a long and treacherous journey across a freezing Tumen River to China, then through the Gobi desert to Mongolia. She has since settled in Seoul, South Korea. Now, she is using her background to help advocate for the freedom of information through the country’s growing black market and through organizations like the Human Rights Foundation, which holds programs like this weekend’s North Korea hackathon. The two-day event attracted a diverse group of participants with different backgrounds and knowledge on the pariah nation, sharing one common goal: figuring out how to get information into North Korea safely.
Alex Gladstein, the director of institutional affairs for the Human Rights Foundation, said after food, hunger for anything cultural from outside of the regime is what North Korean citizens crave. “It’s mainly soft culture, whether it’s Hollywood, South Korean soap operas, Bollywood movies, anything that shows something different,” Gladstein said via telephone. The Foundation estimates 25 percent of North Koreans listen to foreign broadcasts illegally, and nearly every household has some kind of illegal technological device.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s youth are primed to be less afraid of the regime. “Unlike Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, the current leader is not treated like deity,” Gladstein said. The unwavering commitment from the people that the two older Kims used to command does not resonate with many of the country’s younger residents, manifesting itself in small but significant ways. “Young people [in North Korea] now have outside haircuts and speak outside dialects. Now is the time to get the information in,” Gladstein said.
The hackathon discussed precisely how to do that. Some ideas were decidely low-tech, like using slingshots to fire USB drives over the border, while others were more advanced. The hackathon’s winning idea came from Justice and Madison Suh, 17-year old Korean-Americans from Virginia, and Matthew Lee, a former Google employee. The two teens proposed information be accessed from within North Korea’s borders by sneaking in credit-card sized devices based on a microcomputer called Raspberry Pi, which is able to carry preloaded content and pick up radio signals. Lee offered an idea that would allow North Koreans who already own televisions to access live TV through a South Korean satellite television service called SkyLife. By sneaking in small, book-sized coaxial cable devices and hooking them up to TV sets, North Koreans would likely be able to access SkyLife signals.
There was a time when the consequences for being caught with foreign videos or information warranted immediate execution. This was how the mother of Park’s friend died, after being caught with a Disney movie. While the danger of being caught is still real, the threat of death is now less likely.
Along with Park, other North Korean defectors attended the event to help guide teams and offer a real perspective on the issues the country is facing, as well as single out ideas that would fail in a low-technology, obsessively controlled society. Defector Park Sang Hak and his organization Fighters for a Free North Korea are already launching balloons carrying radios, USBs and even DVDs from the South Korean border to North Korea.