Hollywood and Korean pop could bring down Kim Jong Un

The only time I visited North Korea, Mr Kim Jong Il was the dictator and Dr Madeleine Albright was the US secretary of state. I was part of her press entourage when she travelled to the Hermit Kingdom at the end of 2000.

For the reporters with Dr Albright, Pyongyang was like a museum after business hours. Minders allowed us to tour a department store with barren shelves and no customers. The menu at our hotel had pages of items, but the only food actually available was noodles and kimchi.

The United States delegation and reporters sat in a near-vacant parachute-shaped stadium for what was called a "mass demonstration", where North Koreans flipped large illustrated cards to create visual tableaus of scenes from their country's history. We got a chance to glimpse city blocks with malnourished citizens doing make-work as vans circled them blasting songs and speeches. 

My most lasting memory of that visit came at the very end. After a series of lavish banquets for the American and North Korean delegations, Dr Albright presented Mr Kim with a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. The dictator responded by offering Albright his e-mail address. After being briefed about these pleasantries, reporters joked that Mr Kim's e-mail address was simply "@DPRK" because there was only one person in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with access to the Internet.

I thought of Dr Albright's visit last week when I sat down with North Korean dissident Jung Gwang Il at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference for dissidents and other troublemakers. Most of us think of Mr Jung's home country as hermetically sealed from the outside world. This is largely true, but Mr Jung and other defectors may have figured out a way to break that seal.

Like in 2000, almost all North Koreans today still cannot access the Internet. But many can afford a portable, rechargeable mini-DVD player made in China, known as the Notel. Reuters reported this year that one can find these items for sale throughout the country for about US$48 (S$65).

The portable players have largely replaced televisions in North Korea because those sets suck up too much power for the country's anaemic electric grid. With a car battery though, you can charge the Notel, making it an ideal platform for watching the state's propaganda.

But the Notels also have a subversive feature: ports for an SD card and a USB stick. Mr Jung's organisation, No Chain, launches miniature commercial helicopter drones over the North Korean border (he declined to say exactly where, for security reasons) with payloads of USB sticks and SD cards loaded up with everything from South Korean soap operas and Korean pop videos to Western movies with Korean subtitles. In Oslo, attendees were encouraged to donate old USB sticks by placing them on a wall with slots of Mr Kim Jong Un's mouth.   "In North Korea, all movies and television is about loyalty to the regime and loving the dictator," Mr Jung told me. "This non-North Korean content shows what the people who live outside of North Korea live like. When they see these dramas and movies, it has a huge effect."

Hollywood movies certainly contrast with the official message in North Korea. The regime's propaganda is famous for its stark depictions of how depraved and impoverished the outside world is compared to the glorious fatherland.

Mr Jung is not the only North Korean dissident trying to undermine the regime with soap operas and pop music. Since 2009, various defector groups have tried a number of ways to smuggle this kind of content to North Koreans. Methods tried include using helium balloons, sling shots and networks of smugglers. But Mr Jung says the small helicopter drones are the safest and best way to do it, even though they can only travel a little over a mile into DPRK territory. "So far, the drones have not been caught or crashed," he said. "We are able to deliver the payload more precisely and at a greater quantity without risking human cost." The human risk is real. Mr Jung says his network of defectors report that North Koreans have been imprisoned and in a few cases executed in public for owning illegal television shows and movies. Now that the defectors are delivering such shows on tiny USB sticks and SD cards, as opposed to DVDs, they are much easier to hide from authorities.

Mr Jung also said that the authorities themselves are usually interested in watching and selling the content. "The very agents tasked with catching the people watching this content are the ones who are selling it," he said, with a smile.

He told me that in the future, he planned on diversifying content based on feedback he is getting from inside North Korea. He has started including video interviews of himself and other dissidents talking about life outside of the country. He said he planned on delivering a video with Korean subtitles of The Eichmann Show, a movie about the Nuremburg trials. "It's a way of telling the people that one day, the regime leaders will be held accountable," Mr Jung said.

We can hope that day comes soon. When it does, I imagine many liberated Koreans will wonder why so many of us seemed so indifferent to their torment and why an American secretary of state once gave their tormentor a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. Until then, dissidents like Mr Jung are doing their part to stir unrest inside his former slave state, one drone at a time.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Hollywood and Korean pop could bring down Kim Jong Un'. Print Edition | Subscribe