Silicon Valley May Help Smuggle Data-Filled Balloons Into North Korea

The huge helium tubes will float Wikipedia, TV shows, and pro-democracy literature into the DPRK.

Feb 25 2014, 6:07pm
Image: Human Rights Foundation

The media can be fascinated with how little we know about life in North Korea, but the more pertinent story may be how little North Koreans know about the outside world. That is why, just over a week after the UN condemned North Korea for committing “crimes against humanity,” human rights activists are asking heavyweights in Silicon Valley to help break the regime's information monopoly by floating data-filled balloons into the DPRK.

The project’s headed up by Park Sang Hack, who defected from North Korea 15 years ago and has been fighting against its totalitarian regime since. His organization, Fighters for a Free North Korea, teamed up with the Human Rights Foundation to launch 20 balloons from outside of Seoul last month. Now they're gearing up for another launch in March, and are soliciting expertise—and money—from the tech capital of the US to make the project more effective this time around.

It’s an impressively creative, if remarkably low-tech idea. The wind carries the balloons—huge, 20-foot-long cylindrical helium tubes literally held together by tape—into North Korea where they airdrop a taste of the outside world down to the citizenry: DVDs of South Korean soap operas, USBs loaded with the Korean version of Wikipedia, transistor radios to listen to foreign broadcasts, thousands of pro-democracy leaflets, and US dollars and sweets to entice people to open the packages.

Image: Fighters for a Free North Korea

But in past attempts, the wind only blew about a third of the balloons into the Hermit Kingdom, so Park is hoping to get advice from GPS experts to better track the balloons and increase their accuracy during his trip to California.

Park and HRF’s Alex Gladstein met this week with Wikimedia engineers in San Francisco and software engineers at Stanford, the San Jose Mercury News reported, seeking everything from flash drive donations to a hackathon to improve the balloon design to funding to expand the size of the fleet.

It costs $5,000 to launch 10 balloons, Park told Ars Technica, adding, “I believe that if we can get 100 times more balloons, then we will make Kim Jong Un paranoid—sending more and more balloons to North Korea is more effective than sending a bomb on North Korea."

Park believes the best course toward change is to inspire a movement from within the country, by exposing North Koreans to the propaganda coming from Kim Jong Un's government and get people angry at their leader. "Each parcel of truth that makes it in is another crack in the totalitarian wall," Gladstein told the Mercury News. That may be the kind of a hard pitch that Silicon Valley’s technoutopianists can't turn down.