Asia-Pacific

Inside the company smuggling USBs into North Korea

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A South Korean company that smuggles USB sticks and radios into North Korea says it will quadruple its content this year to keep up with demand.

SBS News reporter Kirsty Johansen is in South Korea for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games (9-25 February).

In a small office in Seoul, South Korea, 10 people spend their days downloading the latest foreign TV dramas, animation, music and English educational tools to put on to USB sticks.

They are hoping to change the attitudes of people in one of the most closed and secretive societies on earth: North Korea.

Kang Cheol Hwan, president of Seoul think tank North Korean Strategy Centre.
Kang Cheol Hwan, president of Seoul think tank North Korean Strategy Centre.
SBS News

Kang Cheol Hwan, president of Seoul think tank North Korean Strategy Centre, says last year they distributed 20,000 memory sticks in the country, but this year they are hoping for up to 80,000.

“Our main goal is to democratise North Korea. We want press freedom. People have the right to know what’s going on,” said Mr Kang.

People have the right to know what’s going on.

Kang Cheol Hwan

In a nation where internet access is tightly controlled, the thirst for knowledge on the outside world has never been greater.

Mr Kang defected from North Korea in 1992. He spent 10 years in a prison camp but says it was listening to South Korean radio that convinced him he needed to escape.

“I listened to the radio for three years. At the beginning it was very scary; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The more I heard, the more I knew it to be true. Over that time I became disillusioned by the regime,” Mr Kang said.

He is now risking his own life to buy old radios, phones, DVD and CD players to send across the border - as well as the USBs. Anyone caught distributing such materials in North Korea could face prison or death.

This year Mr Kang plans to send 30,000-40,000 radios.

Some of the devices set to be smuggled into North Korea.
Some of the devices set to be smuggled into North Korea.
SBS News

“I feel so bad because that still won’t meet the demand,” he said.

The devices are transported from South Korea to China before being smuggled across the border at three different locations. They are normally hidden in bags of rice but people have been known to smuggle them by making the daring journey on foot.

On North Korea’s black market, USBs sell for 20 cents. They are also randomly handed out on the street, even to school children.

Goods being sold on North Korea’s black market.
Goods being sold on North Korea’s black market.
SBS News

A former top security advisor for the North Korean government who did not wish to be named, told SBS News that if devices can reach 50 per cent of the population, it might be enough to bring down the Kim regime.

“We are trying to change the perception of the North Korean people. We can play an important part in the collapse of the North Korean regime,” he said.

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