A two-day hackathon next month is aiming to bring more information to North Koreans. Hack North Korea, held in San Francisco between August 2 and 3, is hosted by New York-based NGO the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), and will pair Silicon Valley experts with defectors from the east Asian state, which is widely considered the most closed society on Earth.
Defectors attending the event will include democracy activist Park Sang-hak, and Kang Chol-hwan, who penned the autobiographical book The Aquariums of Pyongyang about his life as a child prisoner.
Rather than aiming to hack sensitive data, the hackathon will brainstorm ways of smuggling information into North Korea. The nation of almost 25 million has no free press, and Internet activity is limited to a select few government officials.
HRF claims that it has had previous success launching balloons attached to Wikipedia-loaded USB sticks into North Korea, as well as information released in leaflets and shortwave radio broadcasts. But Alex Gladstein, the group’s director of institutional affairs, claims that much more could be achieved by harnessing the prowess of the Bay Area.
“Balloons are more symbolic; a lot of defectors had seen the balloons before,” says Gladstein. “But it would make it more effective if we could get some more metrics on them.”
The group has considered offline WikiReaders, he adds, “but you need an install. If you’re a student in Pyongyang why would you use that? We want to have more Autoplay, image-based software and stuff that’s more easily accessible.”
Gladstein stresses that the hackathon is not pledging to “change massive problems overnight,” but rather to open a dialogue between North Korean defectors and Silicon Valley. “Defector-led groups’ budgets total under $2 million,” he says. “That’s tiny. I think there’s a lot of room for policy-makers, businesses and governments to get involved.”
Gladstein adds that there have already been proven positive impacts from the HRF’s work. Most homes now have ‘secret televisions’, he claims, where families access information from outside the country. The group also says that a quarter of all North Koreans have listened to a foreign radio device.
We’re tapping into an existing, ongoing phenomenon,” says Gladstein. “The government is losing control of the way people are making financial investments and consuming culture. When that’s happening you can really make leveraged investments. It’s education, it’s learning.”
North Korea is governed by Kim Jong-un, 31, who succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. Last year the state raised tensions with a series of missile launches and fierce rhetoric, directed mainly at its southern neighbour and the United States. Most recently Kim has been attempting to negotiate with Seoul regarding its participation at this year’s Asian Games, which will be held in the southern city of Incheon in September and October.
North Korea, despite its perceived lack of technology, is active in cyber warfare. Last year a massive attack paralyzing South Korean banking and broadcasting systems was widely blamed on Pyongyang. Speaking after the attack Sun-Chul Kim, a South Korean cyber security expert, claimed that the North “employs up to 4,000 people dedicated to cyber conflict.”
Today North Korea launched a cooking website ‘for housewives’ called Korean Dishes, two years after it was initially announced.