With all the recent disturbing saber rattling from U.S. president Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, East Asia has become much more unstable. World leaders and seasoned diplomats are urging constraint and intensified diplomacy to defuse the potentially catastrophic situation.
In April I wrote about why tech companies (which tend to stay out of geopolitical emergencies) should be particularly concerned about the situation in North Korea, and begin making preparations now for what could happen later.
That remains true, but tech companies, in my view, could do more than just prepare. They could think about what they can do to help bring about a peaceful solution in North Korea. We’ve all heard about how there are “no good options” in Korea, but that refers to short-term military solutions. The weapon to which North Korea may be most vulnerable is information.
It certainly wields it effectively on its own people. The tight control of information is the Kim Jong Un regime’s most powerful instrument of control. It couples a constant barrage of nationalist propaganda with a smothering control over exposure to outside information and opinions. Children growing up in North Korea, for example, learn very early in life that the United States is their country’s biggest enemy and the cause of all its problems. The end result is a people enslaved to an ideology that goes unquestioned and uncontested.
The tech industry could do a lot to test how well that regime can defend against information from without. Many oppressive regimes before it have not fared well. I’ve seen this up close.
Oppression, Up Close
Back in 1973 I travelled with a group of 51 international youth to protest the lack of personal and religious freedoms in the Soviet Union. We planned to hold our rally in Red Square during their May Day celebration that year. We drove the route from Helsinki to Moscow, with stops in Kalinin and what is now St. Petersburg. We entered on tourist visas and did not declare our real intentions.
During the first part of the trip we saw how depressed the country was and how downtrodden its people had become. All they knew is what their leadership had told them. We saw that their leaders created fear by fabricating myths about how evil the outside world was.
Despite our secrecy, our group fell under suspicion from the time we entered the Soviet Union. The trip went smoothly during our stay in Kalinin, but by the time we got to St. Petersburg the government had concluded we had other intentions than just sightseeing. We were arrested, roughed up, then kicked out of the country within two days.
The experience, naturally, stayed with me. Seeing firsthand how totalitarian leadership can enslave an entire country played into another key decision I made in the mid-1980s. Already entrenched in the PC industry, I started to think about ways of getting information from the outside world into the Soviet Union.
The Fax Offensive
In 1985, about two years before President Reagan gave his “tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, I began working with a group of people in Hamburg, Germany, whose goal was to smuggle fax machines into the Soviet Union. They wanted to write, and deliver via fax, newsletters about what was going on outside of Russia to make people in the Soviet Union more aware of the lies of communism.
The group already had some success getting fax machines into the Soviet Union, mainly by hiding them in the cars of people who routinely went back and forth over the border (they were less likely to be searched). I provided some funding and some of the technical support information that accompanied the fax machines headed for the Soviet Union. Once inside, the fax machines were connected to the phone lines using acoustic couplers (that thing David Lightman sat his phone on in WarGames) so they could receive the newsletters.
It worked very well, and it mattered. The newsletters spread like wildfire. And the Soviet leadership had no clue how to stop this flow of information. You can look back in history and see that the flow of information played a key role in the breakup and collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, Michal Gorbachov, when asked at a major policy event in New York City in the mid 1990s about what forced the collapse of the Soviet Union, he specifically called out the government’s inability to control information coming in from the outside. He mentioned that fax machines had played a major role in conveying that information.
When Mr. Gorbachov spoke at Stanford a year later, I had a chance to briefly interview him. I asked him about that statement. Once people got more information about the free world, he told me, and when the Politburo could not control this flow of information, things began to change rapidly. Ironically many of the Soviet people learned of Gorbachov’s ouster via fax machine, as it took days for the Kremlin to circulate the statement confirming the change in leadership.
Technology was also credited with playing a big role in bringing about the Arab Spring. A large, city-crippling protest, spread through viral social media, helped stoked political unrest and disruption in countries across the region, and eventually, arguably, at Wall Street.
If tech helped bring about such big changes in the Soviet Union and the Middle East, it is at least feasible it could do something similar in North Korea. The North Korean people could use smartphones and the internet to gain a better understanding of outside world. They need to learn that they are being enslaved by ruthless leaders who use propaganda and fake news to control them. This might influence their views of the Kim regime, and over time cause Kim himself to loosen his grip on the people of this Hermit Kingdom.
Phones For Defectors
Access to information and information technology within North Korea is slowly growing. In an important piece in Politico, former State Department official Tom Malinowski describes how that access could help bring change and peace to North Korea. Here is a key passage:
“Virtually all recent North Korean defectors say that despite the risks, they consumed these media before leaving their country; usage by the general population may be lower, but is growing each year. In a recent survey, 87 percent of defectors say they purchased media devices and other consumer goods, including food and clothes, using money earned outside their official occupation—a sign of how ubiquitous black markets now are in North Korea. As a result, the regime has shifted its strategy from trying to deny its people access to information technologies to controlling and monitoring their use. But the more people use these devices, the harder it becomes for the state to spy on everyone.”
Malinowski goes on to say that Chinese smartphones are legal and abundant on the black markets, and could be used to get political and cultural information from South Korea and and elsewhere. The challenge for North Koreans is keeping their secret access hidden from the authorities: A recent article in The Economist titled “What North Koreans Learn From Smartphones,” states that North Korea has actually sanctioned broad 3G wireless networks but wants to maintain tight control over the content delivered over those networks.
Drones And Thumb Drives
The tech industry can support the spread of information to North Korea in a couple of ways.
First, technologists need to continue to work on ways to un-jam the signals that countries like North Korea is using to control the content that the people can receive on their computers, phones, and TVs. While this can be expensive and the U.S. and the South Korean Military no doubt are trying to do that now, Silicon Valley companies who have this technology should be working closer with these efforts to get more information in and out of the Hermit Kingdom. For instance, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, the Pentagon’s two-year-old Mountain View outpost, is already tapping ideas from across the Valley.
Second: We need more USB drives slipping into North Korea via underground channels, the way they are doing today, functioning like the fax machines that were once used to disseminate new ideas into the Soviet empire.
Silicon Valley companies and other people who want to see North Korea freed from the clutches of Kim Jong Un can also provide technical and financial support to groups like the Human Rights Foundation that are creating soap operas, serials, and other content designed to spread messages of hope and freedom to North Koreans and expose them to the real world that exists outside the strict controls of their leadership.
Third, the tech world can invent new technologies. Consider the winning idea at a recent hacakathon sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation: a pair of Korean-American teenagers partnered with a former Google engineer to create a flat and easily concealable satellite dish that could be surreptitiously slipped across the border to break through the government’s information firewall, and deliver the kind of videos that HRF is making.
Even with tight controls by the government, The Economist notes, “Many watchers believe that, if North Koreans had enough mobile phones, received enough outside news and saw enough soaps depicting the South’s freedoms and riches, the regime would founder.” Thae Yong Ho, a North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea last year, tells the magazine he believes the regime will “collapse on its own when enough external information introduced through drones or USBs reveals the truth of the Kim regime.” (In one recent poll of defectors cited by The Economist, 98% said they had used USBs to store illegal content.)
In no way do I suggest that technology would be “the” savior that frees the North Korean’s from being enslaved by the Kim regime. However, given my own experience with the Soviet Union and seeing how technology impacted the Arab Spring, I do hold out hope that tech could be part of the solution. Opening channels of free communication from outside North Korea could help the poor country’s people push for and achieve greater freedom of speech and expression. It could touch off a warming process that might lead to the ouster of North Korea’s current leadership.
Contributor Tim Bajarin is a long-time Silicon Valley businessman and analyst. He is president of the tech market research firm Creative Strategies.