North Korea has been called the world’s most inhospitable place for media freedom (PDF), a place where an authoritarian government sharply restricts communications out of the country and obsessively monitors phone call activity. At a hackathon in San Francisco this past weekend, participants teamed with North Korean dissidents on a novel project: Developing tech to break North Korea’s communications barricade.
The two-day event, called Hack North Korea, was organized by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Thor Halvorssen, the head of the Human Rights Foundation, told Co.Labs that the idea originated with Alex Lloyd of venture capital firm Accelerator Ventures. Lloyd (who had collaborated with the HRF in launching radios into North Korea before) added that the idea behind the hackathon was to build connections between the tech community of Silicon Valley and North Korean dissidents currently living in the United States and South Korea.
Approximately 35 participants broke up into eight teams over the weekend to brainstorm projects to smuggle information into North Korea. Four North Korean expatriates, including North Korean "Enemy Zero" Park Sang Hak, went from team to team with translators to offer assistance. Participants came from a wide range of backgrounds, including college students, information assurance experts, Silicon Valley startup types, and journalists who previously covered North Korea.
The winning team, which will receive a trip to Seoul, South Korea to work with North Korean dissidents there, came up with an idea to create Raspberry Pi-based micro-radios that can pick up South Korean broadcasts and also contain pre-loaded SD cards. They also came up with the theoretical idea for iPad-sized satellite receivers, easily smuggled over the China-North Korea border, which could connect North Korean televisions via USB or coaxial tube with South Korean satellite provider Skylife. This team consisted of a former Google engineer using the pseudonym Matthew Lee, and two homeschooled Korean-American 17-year-olds from Virginia named Madison and Justice Suh.
Other projects discussed in the hackathon included methods of encrypting USB drives so information contraband could not be found by North Korean authorities, using satellite modems to discreetly send short text messages, and ways of hiding radio broadcasting equipment along the China-North Korean border.
It’s important to note that the event appeared by all measures to be about publicity for the place of technology in piercing North Korea’s information wall rather than as an R&D lab. The hackathon had been previously promoted in venues such as The Guardian and Hacker News, representatives from the U.S. State Department appeared to be at the event as guests, and press releases were issued with information about the hackathon winners. The corollary to this, of course, is that some very interesting technology for smuggling information into North Korea is likely being created right now behind closed doors.
A lot of this information smuggling takes place using balloons. Park Sang-Hak uses balloons and GPS guides to smuggle DVDs containing Korean-language Wikipedias, propaganda booklets, and American currency over the South Korean-North Korean border. Park said at the event via a translator that "There’s unceasing interest by the North Korean regime in harassing and threatening defectors and others interested in this work. Right now, it’s a lonely task—people who should be interested are disinterested. But someday, 20 million North Korean citizens will realize they can have the freedom and liberty defectors in South Korea have."
Lloyd added by email that "Every defector group I met, in the simplest and most eloquent terms, explained to us that the game-changer in North Korea would be access to information. Together, we brainstormed about what types of technology might help. Some dissidents favored radio transmissions. Others favored USB sticks smuggled across the border from China. And some wanted to launch balloons guided by a simple GPS device to drop payloads of leaflets and thumb drives when they had reached a certain location inside North Korea. Why stop there? Peer to peer mesh networks, perfectly encrypted messaging services like Wickr, drones, cheap Wikireaders, and Kindles—the possibilities are limitless."
For North Korea’s population of 24.76 million there are approximately 3.5 million computers and 1.5 million tablets, along with 3 million mobile phones. Most computers in the country use either older versions of Windows or a homegrown Unix variant (skinned to look remarkably like Mac OS X) called Red Star OS. For more on North Korean technology, Martyn Williams’ North Korea tech blog and Chad O’Carroll’s NK News offer excellent primers.