Politics & Policy

Open Up North Korea’s Information Curtain

North Korean soldiers at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Private individuals can send news of the outside world to North Koreans locked in the Hermit Kingdom.

The North Korean victory in getting Sony Pictures to pull its satirical film The Interview is a game-changing event to which free nations must respond. Adding cyber terrorism to the list of weapons that rogue nations can deploy means that both nations and private groups can be blackmailed by potentially anyone over anything.

The U.S. government is debating its response. But in the meantime, private citizens can take action, and in ways even governments can’t or won’t.

Consider what the New York–based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is doing to help counter the secrecy and restrictions on information that North Korea uses to control its people. The group has devised an ingenious weapon: a durable, vinyl balloon that can carry pamphlets, money, transistor radios, flash drives, and, yes, copies of movies that could open the eyes of North Koreans to the outside world and the exact nature of the Kim-family regime that oppresses them.

For more than a decade, human-rights activists have launched balloons across the 2.5-mile demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. The balloons, some three feet in diameter, each carry a tiny transistor radio and $1 in North Korean money as an incentive for those finding them to pick up the parcels rather than report them to police.

“The North Koreans are thirsty for any information from outside,” Douglas Shin, a Korean-American pastor told the Los Angeles Times. “They have been prohibited from contact with outsiders for so long that they are like cactus in the desert looking for water. They will absorb whatever they can get.”

The Human Rights Foundation’s “Hack Them Back” program will employ balloons but will also work with North Korean defectors to smuggle DVDs, USB sticks, and leaflets across the Chinese border into North Korea. Thor Halvorssen, the president of HRF, appeared on ABC News’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos today to discuss the effort to get information form the outside world to the beleaguered North Koreans. “North Korean defectors — they know it works because many of them came to South Korea, escaped North Korea through China, as a result of receiving some of this material,” Halvorrsen said. “And North Korea has no Internet connects whatsoever. North Korea, it’s the Hermit Kingdom. They try and keep information tightly locked. It’s why this film [The Interview] is so dangerous to them, because they perceive the Kims as a god. . . . [Outside influences] produce a-ha moments in people who’ve been living under propaganda for so long.”

In fact, Halvorssen has working for him a North Korean defector who experienced just such an a-ha moment and thus can attest to the power of Western media. I met Yeonmi Park at HRF’s Oslo Freedom Forum last October and was captivated by her story. The petite 21-year-old told NRO’s Jay Nordlinger she had no idea of the outside world. But her insatiable curiosity prompted her to watch a smuggled copy of James Cameron’s Titanic, even though she had witnessed the execution of a friend’s mother who had been condemned to death for watching a forbidden James Bond film.

Titanic changed her life. As she told me in Oslo, “It showed me noble people who were willing to die for love. It made me realize I was controlled by a regime that wanted me to only love the Kims. North Koreans don’t realize they are slaves, but after the movie I did.” She became emboldened to embark on a dangerous two-year escape through China and Mongolia until she finally reached South Korea.

When I met Park in October, the North Koreans had already made vague threats against Sony over its planned Christmas release of The Interview. But Park was convinced the movie could prove valuable in demystifying the North Korean regime. “It’s not just that they hate being mocked by others, it’s that they fear their own people might realize the mockery is closer to the truth than what they are telling them,” she told me.

Of course, balloons and movies aren’t the only weapons we should deploy against North Korea. Representative Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, points out just how effective financial sanctions have proved in the past. In 2005, the U.S. Treasury took action against a bank in Macau that money laundered massive amounts of cash for North Korea. At the same time, Japan cracked down on illegal businesses sending cash to North Korea. “Within six weeks, Kim could not pay his generals and the regime was imploding,” Royce says. “Then our State Department relented in order to get diplomatic talks going again, and the moment was lost.”

Royce has introduced legislation to resume those sanctions, though it’s unclear if President Obama would sign such a bill. But, in any event, there’s no time to waste. While governments around the world debate over what to do about North Korea, private citizens can strike a blow against the Hermit Kingdom by sending its people what their leaders fear most: the truth.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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