Connecting to Offline Kingdoms: Lessons from Cuba and Myanmar for North Korea’s Underground Media

BY TOM NORRIS, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

July 2017 - Extremely resilient to change, North Korea is one of the world’s last offline kingdoms. Whereas countries like Cuba and Myanmar have been forced to ease state control and censorship in response to domestic and international pressure, North Korea has doubled down on its efforts to block access to information from the outside world.

Despite this great challenge, activists believe that Cuba and Myanmar’s past may be a window into North Korea’s future. Learning from innovative methods used by activists to avoid state detection in Cuba and Myanmar, South Korean organizations believe they will be able to devise better strategies for information dissemination in the North Korean context.

With this goal in mind, a unique assembly of international journalists and activists gathered in Seoul on Thursday, July 20th to share their experiences as independent media actors struggling against state control.

The first of the international guests, Pablo Diaz, began by recalling a story from his childhood, growing up under the Castro regime in Havana. As a young boy obsessed with baseball, Diaz would often sit outside the capital’s largest international hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of foreign baseball stars visiting the country. One day, a South Korean baseball player left the hotel for some fresh air and, upon seeing Diaz with his bicycle across the road, walked over and handed Diaz his Walkman music player. The player then took Diaz’s bicycle and cycled off down the road. When he returned ten minutes later, the player smiled and collected his Walkman back from the stunned boy.

The experience was shocking to Diaz and changed his view of the world in an instant. It was the first time he had seen anybody act with individual freedom, spontaneity, and joy. Also, using the Walkman for just ten minutes, he had peered through a window into the free world for the first time.

Diaz spoke of the effect technology can have on those living under repression but also was quick to warn Korean activists of the challenges of disseminating information to repressed populaces. According to Diaz, the greatest challenge of the work, besides avoiding state detection, is avoiding the alienation of citizens. He warned that “you cannot reach an audience if they are more interested in soap operas than the truth of their situation”.

The next speaker, Rafael Duval, an expert on anti-censorship tools, seconded Diaz’s opinion, cautioning that “if devices contain only informational, non-entertainment content then they will not be widely shared”. Duval then demonstrated to the audience his organization’s favored method of information sharing, the paquete.

The paquete, or packet in English, gained widespread popularity in Cuba after Duval and his colleagues found a way to copy entire websites (complete with linked content) to non-networked, untraceable devices. Called the “internet without internet”, the devices became very effective tools for disseminating information and were spread widely across the island.

After giving the audience a tutorial on how to create similar paquetes for North Korea, Duval shared what he considered to be the real key to their success. Aside from striking a proper balance of informational and entertainment material, it was crucial to incentivize the spread of the devices. As Cuban people began to make a living off of distributing the offline materials, the content reached a wider and wider audience.

Although the topic of the conference was the dissemination of information into North Korea. The next speaker, Khin Maung Win, spoke of an equal need for the opposite process- the need for information and images from North Korea to be shared with the outside world.

For decades, as the head of the Democratic Voice of Burma, Win worked to build an underground network of journalists within Myanmar, giving the repressed Burmese people a voice and bringing awareness of their situation to the international community. By training and equipping local people to disseminate information from within the authoritarian country to the outside world, Win’s organization was able to generate a groundswell of international support. This support would ultimately translate into pressure on the regime and, eventually, help lead to a successful democratic movement in 2010.        

Putting his theory into the context of North Korea, Win urged activists in South Korea to consider a similar two-way approach. He argued that, by disseminating information both to and from North Korea, activists can work in two ways toward the same goal of eventual political change. North Koreans can also join the fight against their government’s repression by receiving knowledge from the outside and relaying back images from within their country.      

Emboldened by this encouragement and practical advice from Cuban and Burmese activists, North Korean human rights actors are now devising new and innovative methods of disseminating information both to and from North Korea. Although the North Korean government’s opposition is not likely to falter any time soon, thanks to the help of their Cuban and Burmese counterparts, activists in South Korea may now have greater success connecting to the offline kingdom.