In an amazing, long, in-depth investigative piece, Wired's Andy Greenberg recounts the story of North Korean dissidents who have escaped, but who mastermind ambitious smuggling efforts that send thousands of USB sticks and SD cards over the border stuffed with pirate media:
sitcoms, raunchy teen comedies and ebooks — as well as homemade documentaries explaining democracy and the gap between North Korea's official doctrine and reality.
One of the smugglers, Jung Kwang-il, was sentenced to a lifetime hard labor when he was a child as part of the "three generation" system of punishments, in which people convicted of political crimes are sent away for brutal work and torture along with two other whole generations of their families. When he was granted unexpected clemency after a decade of unthinkable privation, he defected and set himself against the Kim regime.
Another smuggler, Kim Heung-kwang, once served as a secret policeman, using his skill as a computer scientist to root out hidden western media and sending his victims away to gulags. But after reading some of the ebooks he'd recovered from a seized hard-drive, he changed sides, defected, and started an organization that sends helium balloons over North Korean border to rain down pamphlets, media and US currency.
It's clear that the work these people do is in some way undermining the Kim regime. People who are exposed to this media are emboldened and sometimes enraged. But no one can draw a path from these actions to the fall of the Kim regime.
Yeonmi Park's family paid around 3,000 North Korean won for a pack of DVDs that contained a bootleg of Titanic. In the early 2000s, she remembers, that was the cost of several pounds of rice in her home city of Hyesan—a significant sacrifice in a starving country. But of all the tween girls who became obsessed with the star-crossed romance of Jack and Rose, Park was one of the very few who saw it as downright revolutionary. "In North Korea they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he's dying for a girl he loves," she says. "I thought, how can anyone make this and not be killed?"
Titanic was hardly Park's only foreign-video experience. Her mother had sold DVDs; some of Park's earliest memories are of waking to the grunts and shouts of her father watching American WWF wrestling. Park loved Cinderella, Snow White, and Pretty Woman. The family would put its tapes and discs in a plastic bag and bury it beneath a potted plant to hide it from the police.
But of all those illegal encounters with foreign culture, Titanic was somehow the film that made Park ask herself questions about freedom and the outside world. "It made me feel like something was off with our system," she says in fluent English, which she perfected by watching the entire run of Friends dozens of times.
Park escaped from North Korea in 2007. Now a 21-year-old activist based in Seoul, she's part of what's known in Korea as the jangmadang sedae: the black-market generation. During a famine in the North in the mid-1990s, the Kim regime began to tolerate illegal trade because it was the only option to feed a starving population. Since then, black-market commerce has been nearly impossible to stamp out. And some of the hottest commodities—particularly for young people who don't even remember a North Korea before that underground trade existed—have been foreign music and movies, along with the Chinese-made gadgets to play them.
The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of 'Friends' [Andy Greenberg/Wired]
(Image: Joe Pugliese/Wired)