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View more articles by Doyun Kim
Doyun is an NK News contributor based in Seoul. She studied Sociology and English at Wellesley College, where she initially developed her interest in DPRK issues.
“Hack North Korea” took place in San Francisco on August 2-3, bringing together journalists, activists and hackers to address North Korea’s information blockade by placing the solution in the hands of the people.
The Human Rights Foundation, widely known for sending information-filled USBs, Choco Pies and aid tied to balloons into North Korea, strives to bring change through the spirit of collaboration and innovation. They organized the two-day “hackathon,” believing that incorporating the “hacker mindset” can mobilize the “calcified” human rights movement.
“So much of human rights become politicized. You’re either on the right or you’re on the left. You’re either criticizing them of this reason or that reason,” HRF president Thor Halvorseen said. “Let’s put all that behind us and let’s hack this. Let’s bring people who are focused on developing ideas and putting them into action.”
Rather than depending on governments and international organizations to do the work, HRF believes that change can only come from the “internal situation.”
“We believe in helping people, we believe in peer-to-peer networks,” Halvorseen said.
“A true revolution for liberty can only come with information.”
“Hack North Korea” followed the traditional two-day model, in which teams competed for the most effective idea, keeping in mind “practicality, user-friendliness and scalability.”
Before making headway into the competition, the participants were given a better idea of the current landscape and challenges of information sharing in North Korea through defector testimonies.
Yeonmi Park, a young defector who has recently drawn media attention by speaking out on her experiences in the North, described her exposure to Western culture through black-market movies, like Snow White, Titanic and the James Bond series, and the growing desire for these cultural goods in North Korea, especially among her generation – the “black market generation.”
“There was something else, and I had to know what it was,” she said.
The North Korean regime restricts the consumption of outside information by limiting access and enacting harsh punishments, so it is vital to consider the practicalities in project design. The NK News Podcast was on location for this event. In addition to personnel from the Human Rights Foundation, podcast host Kurt Achin talked to other key participants such as Park, Martyn Williams of the North Korea Tech blog and NK News founder Chad O’Carroll.
“North Korea is really unlike any other nation on Earth. There is, for all intents and purposes, no Internet access, so that first of all means that all of these clever systems that use the Internet or encrypted channels or things like that – none of them work,” said Williams.
Beyond design, what is being sent in must be considered as well.
“The key for it to be effective is it has to be something the North Koreans want themselves,” O’Carroll said. “It’s all good and well figuring out ways to send information in, but it must be packaged in a way that will stimulate organic demand, otherwise it’s not going to be shared.”
The proposed solutions ranged from high-tech capable devices to low-tech mechanisms, including a slingshot that could pass goods from China to North Korea.
In the end, the winner was “Skylife” – a team that proposed the use of a South Korean satellite that already has broadcast capabilities into North Korea through a small, portable hardware device that could be ballooned or smuggled in.
They will be traveling to Seoul to continue working on their plans.
Picture: Chad O’Carroll