HRF Presents: Hackathon in Silicon Valley
On August 2, 2014, North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) went to San Francisco to participate in “Hack North Korea”, an event hosted by the Human Rights Foundation. The event was held as a two day competition between nine teams to develop the most feasible/creative ideas and concepts that can be implemented to improve media dissemination in North Korea.
NKSC’s representative – whose identity shall remain anonymous for security reasons – who is a North Korean defector and a dentist by background, spoke about the difficulties of disseminating media and free information in North Korea. While information exchange is occurring within the regime through smuggling of USB’s, DVD’s and micro SD cards, the extent of their accessibility and availability are limited. Further, while the basis of support and resources exists through organizations such as NKSC and North Korea Intellectual Solidarity (NKIS), there still remains a void of access to real time information in North Korea.
NKSC’s representative therefore emphasized the importance of finding ways to increase accessibility to these kinds of real time information through radios and television broadcasts within the regime. The representative also discussed some technical barriers in sending ‘mini-radios’ into North Korea – while they are considerably small in size, they are still easily detectable and thus difficult to smuggle. While NKSC has been working on the utilization of radio dongles, there were difficulties installing such devices.
Lastly, NKSC’s representative mentioned the struggles of importing information into North Korea, it was just as difficult getting information out of the regime. The representative discussed the possibilities of establishing secure points of contact between NKSC staff in China and partners in North Korea. This would not only enable NKSC to coordinate movements of partners in both countries but also help North Korea human rights organizations to gather information out of North Korea.
Kim Heung Gwang, the Executive Director of NKIS, and Park Yeon Mi, a North Korean defector and a TV personality, discussed the influence foreign media on the North Korean people. Further, in his presentation, Executive Director Kim examined the importance of external information on the ability to free the way people think in a closed-off society; similarly, Park recounted her experience of watching Titanic and reading George Orwells’ Animal Farm, and how such exposure has helped to break her perspective on the Kim regime.
During the event, NKSC staff interacted with the members of the nine competing teams to answer any questions the participants may have had. Discussions revolved around the physical process of smuggling USB’s, DVD’s and radios, the level of surveillance carried out by the government, the level of technological infrastructure that exists in North Korea and the personal experiences of defectors.
The event’s participants came from various backgrounds, ranging from computer science engineers, university students, web developers, technology entrepreneurs, journalists and high school students. Approximately 30 participants were able to freely formulate teams or work individually on ideas that they would present in 24 hrs.
Of the nine project proposals presented to the panel, the concept of providing North Koreans with the means of receiving TV Channels from South Korean Satellite broadcasts was awarded as the winner. The device receiving South Korean broadcasts would be approximately the size of a disposable plastic plate, connected to a converter that would allow the digital device to connect on to the analog TVs that the North Koreans own. The team also came up with the idea of providing North Koreans with stronger radios that are capable of picking up transmissions from outside of North Korea. They stated that this would be done through customizing a small device, a mini computer, called a “Raspberry Pi”.
Other ideas presented at the event were: GPS Satellite messaging devices that would create a safe communication channel for field officers in China; low-tech slingshot launchers that would aid getting USBs over the narrower parts of the border; utilization of an encoded messenger called WICKR, allowing North Koreans to communicate with each other safely; and a concept that proposes the set-up of a mesh network that will allow secure transfer and circulation of files within North Korea.
Upon much discussion, the NKSC staff concluded that all these concepts are ideas that could be developed to better the organization’s activities. What is important now is to start creating prototypes that organizations involved in media dissemination in North Korea can take away, run defector focus groups to assess its feasibility and actually test these prototypes on the field. NKSC is keeping touch with all participants of the event to try to make this possible.