These are tricky times for human rights and defector groups working to get outside information into North Korea. With inter-Korean relations better than they’ve been in years and a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un reportedly in the works, organizations with more radical goals in mind have been left out of the loop.
Groups say the South Korean administration has implicitly discouraged human rights and defector groups, and with the U.S. cutting funding for information dissemination efforts and pro-democracy projects, groups like No Chain for North Korea are facing a rocky road ahead.
Founded and run by Jung Gwang-il, a defector and former political prisoner-turned-activist, No Chain aimed to bring information freedom to North Korea by smuggling foreign films, TV shows, and even Wikipedia on DVDs, USB thumb drives, and SD cards. While their main focus is on information dissemination, they also claim to have rescued roughly 40 refugees from China.
Using GPS trackers and software from a UK grassroots organization, No Chain has been able to predict wind currents to make sure their balloons reach the North. Now, they are also measuring ocean currents to send out plastic water bottles that are filled with daily necessities such as rice, feminine hygiene products, and USBs or SD cards.
The bottles are launched from the west coast of South Korea and sent to North Korea using the ocean currents of the Yellow Sea. Compared to other information dissemination methods, this one is considered relatively safe among defector activist groups in Seoul.
In 2016, No Chain also began using helicopter drones to deliver USB sticks and SD cards, to alleviate the physical risks of relying on their human network.
Earlier in the month, Henry Song, Director of No Chain and Jung’s interpreter, returned to Valencia, Spain for the second time to talk about the organization’s current efforts in information dissemination in this year’s Internet Freedom Festival, an annual one-week conference in which about 1200 digital security experts, activists, and journalists from 130 different countries gather to discuss issues related internet freedom.
Given North Korea’s status as the least free country in the world, it was fitting that an organization like No Chain was given the platform to discuss its information dissemination efforts into North Korea at this year’s Internet Freedom Festival.
Following his talk, Song sat down with NK News to discuss how the current warming of inter-Korean relations has affected his organization’s work, North Korea’s crackdown on their efforts, and his hopes for North Korea.
NK News’s participation in the Internet Freedom Festival was assisted financially by the U.S. State Department-supported Project Resilience, and this transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
NK News: How did you get into this field of information dissemination? What convinced you that sending USBs, wifi routers, and smartphones was the best method?
Henry Song: The way I became an activist is almost an accident. I started this work as a volunteer a little over ten years ago, and this sort of morphed into a full-time job. Because I have gotten to know so many defectors and have seen the important stuff, the truth of outside information and what effect that has on North Korean people, that’s why I feel that this work is very important.
Sending in outside information whether it’s the USB or micro SD cards, or finding whatever new technological means to outside information – it’s crucial that the North Korean people are awakened from the state of brainwashing. Propaganda is their way of life.
NK News: The current state of inter-Korean relations must have a significant impact on your work right now. Could you give us an account of how the work has been affected?
Henry Song: Because the Moon administration wants to have peace and reconciliation with the North Korean regime – which is fine – I think if they start putting pressure on defector groups and the activists from stop doing their work, I think that would be a very bad thing because the defectors, they have a sense of calling and duty to reach their fellow brothers and sisters in North Korea with information about the outside world.
“It’s crucial that the North Korean people are awakened from the state of brainwashing”
I think for now, it’s starting to become a bit worrisome but we’ll have to wait and see to see how the South Korean administration will continue, or change their dealings with the defector groups in light of all the things that are happening.
NK News: How are organizations like No Chain staying afloat under the Moon administration?
Henry Song: Mostly, there are groups that get funding from the U.S. State Department, other NGOs, and foundations, but it’s mostly just grassroots, personal one-to-one private donations that we get. It’s very hard, but it’s also way more long-term than government funding.
We are still seeking support from other entities. South Korean corporations can do more, but given the current climate, I doubt that will happen anytime soon. A lot of defector groups place more hope on entities outside of South Korea for support, so we hope that can continue and increase in the future.
No Chain founder Jung Gwang-il talks at the Oslo Freedom Forum
NK News: Are you hopeful for the Moon administration and what they’re doing now?
Henry Song: Well, if the past is any indication, many people don’t hold much hope for these developments that are happening right now. I hope the Moon administration will learn from mistakes that have been made in the past and deal accordingly with Kim Jong Un because it’s so easy to forget what happened in the past, and it’s so easy to get fooled again.
Hopefully, the South Korean government will not be so gullible again. If it leads to peace, that’s great, but what kind of peace? Is it going to be something that’s going to continue the misery of people in North Korea? Then I don’t think that’s something that activists like myself or defectors themselves would like to see.
NK News: In his State of the Union speech in January, Trump highlighted human rights issues and also invited some high-profile defectors to the White House the following day. But he has also been quite aggressive in his rhetoric against North Korea. What do you think of current U.S. policy?
Henry Song: I think it was great that Ji Seong-ho, who happens to be a personal friend of mine, was invited to the State of the Union speech. Having a defector in that setting, you know one of the most important speeches a president can give, on that world stage, for Seong-ho to have lifted up his crutches and highlighted the human rights issue: it was a great thing that Trump did.
“Hopefully, the South Korean government will not be so gullible again. If it leads to peace, that’s great, but what kind of peace?”
A few days later, having them meet at the White House, and Mr. Jeong was part of that group that met Trump, for Trump to highlight the defectors and the human rights issue and place importance on defector testimony, that was a great thing that Trump did.
That may not be something the Moon administration wants, but I think for the defectors, it’s very important that their voices are heard and the whole North Korea approach that the Trump administration is taking should continue.
The defectors should not be sidelined or their voices silenced. If someone is talking to them, if not the Moon administration, at least the U.S. president is doing that, so in that sense, that is a positive development.
NK News: Do you think this issue could be a problem for U.S.-South Korean relations?
Henry Song: It can be. The Moon administration might say, listen, having defectors pop up all the time might be upsetting to the North Korean regime, and the Trump administration might be saying that defectors are the ones that are direct human rights victims of the North Korean dictatorship and it’s important that they highlight that issue to deal with the regime.
There might be some difficulties to come out of this friction, and with the envoys that went to Pyongyang, visiting Washington later this week, who knows what will come out of that. It might be something positive. I hope the defector issue isn’t the one that becomes the major cause of friction, or differences among the two administrations.
NK News: How do you see information dissemination being adopted into the foreign policies of the U.S., South Korea, Japan or China? What are your hopes?
Henry Song: The fact that the U.S. government is supporting radio broadcasters like VOA, RFA, and other groups, I think they see the importance of information dissemination. They obviously want North Koreans to listen to and receive more than what the state provides. They want the truth heard by the people.
In terms of overall policy–I can’t speak for the U.S. government– but American officials want North Koreans to access the truth, which is in line with U.S. policy of spreading democracy, ideals of truth and all that stuff.
NK News: What could South Korea be doing better right now?
Henry Song: System-wise, I think it’s excellent, in terms of the Hanawon, social programs, center place for the defectors. But socially speaking, the whole culture of South Korean people looking down on North Korean defectors, or not wanting reunification: this is something that should be changed. I don’t know if any government programs can change the mindset of the people.
“The whole North Korea approach that the Trump administration is taking should continue”
If the South Korean government can be more proactive–more than just providing the programs and structures in place to resettle the defectors, if they can provide more funding and help the South Korean people be more receptive to defectors. If South Korean society cannot deal with the 30,000 defectors now, how are they going to deal with 24 million North Koreans when the countries unify?
There’s a saying: the defectors are the unification that has already arrived. Work with the defectors, deal with them now so that that will prepare South Korea for eventual reunification.
NK News: How is the success of your information campaigns measured? Have you met anyone that has received your items or was influenced by them?
Henry Song: I myself have not met anyone who has received the USBs, but Mr. Jeong has. I think the effectiveness and value of the whole information dissemination work can be seen in testimonies from not only people like Thae Yong-ho and other defectors, but also the fact that the North Korean regime cracks down on citizens accessing outside information.
Internally, I guess the reaction of the North Korean government, popularity of these devices and content among the people themselves, and externally, from the defectors and the great interest that this generates among the people.
People see this as such a noble thing, like free the minds of the North Korean people from propaganda. That’s great. I think that if this work continues, we can get even more reaction and see the effects of the work that not only No Chain but other groups are doing.
NK News: North Korea’s tech scene is developing fast, and it seems that in the past several years, North Korea has introduced a lot of new technological devices and services to keep people interested. With this in mind, do you ever feel like you are competing against the North?
Henry Song: The regime is trying to counter all these foreign interfaces, but there is only so much they can do. Whatever the regime comes up with, whatever is offered from overseas is so much better. It seems like they are trying to provide entertainment to the people, but there is a limit to how much they can do. I get a sense that there is no competition in terms of what they can access from the outside world.
But then again, if you are a North Korean citizen who bought a state-sanctioned tablet or phone, you’re playing games on it or watching stuff on those devices, I’m sure that will provide some sort of entertainment, but once they get a hold of a South Korean drama or Hollywood film, they will quickly lose interest in what they see in official devices.
“People see this as such a noble thing”
NK News: You mentioned in your talk that No Chain also sends Wi-Fi routers and range extenders to allow people with No Chain-provided smartphones to access the Internet. Are most North Koreans aware of what they are and how to use them? Are there some people who train or educate their friends or close circle on digital fluency? Do you include directions in the bottles or packages that you send out?
Henry Song: There has to be some sort of training on how to use it, access it. We haven’t been able to send out [wifi routers] through bottles yet. That’s something we’re looking into doing when we get more funding. Not only through the bottles, but also expanding our network in China if possible.
Having Wi-Fi signals so strong that it can’t be ignored in North Korea is the best way, because countermeasure is that the regime has against the cell phone signals and whatever is basically overpowered by whatever signal that you’re trying to intercept.
It’s a matter of resources and money.
NK News: Would you say that people in North Korea have become digitally fluent?
Henry Song: Obviously not as much as people elsewhere, but definitely more than they were five or ten years ago. Because of the influx of Chinese smartphones and tablets, and even the regime are selling their own version of tablets and smartphones.
I think digitally speaking, they are more aware, but there is still work that needs to be done.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: No Chain for North Korea
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