In North Korea, episodes of South Korean soap operas or American sitcoms are called "impure recorded visual materials" and are illegal to watch. But North Koreans watch anyway, and the bootleg flash drives that hold the shows—along with things like the Korean version of Wikipedia—are hugely popular on the gray market.
Now human rights activists are launching a massive push for donations of old flash drives in the U.S., recognizing that more North Koreans see the outside world, the closer the country will get to toppling Kim Jong Un.
"To us, it's important that North Koreans tell the world about the horrors of what's happening to their people, but it's much more important—as far as a solution—for us to tell North Koreans about what's going on in the outside world," says Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the Human Rights Foundation, which launched Flash Drives for Freedom along with Forum 280.
"They don't know what's going on," he says. "Ultimately, we believe it's going to be an education and information solution, it's not going to be a military or diplomacy solution. This is basically down to a knowledge awakening."
The flash drives go to groups run by North Korean defectors in South Korea, where they're loaded up with as much data as possible. While blockbuster movies might be most popular, they also include things like footage of South Koreans hanging out in their houses or going to the airport. "This stuff—the everyday, mundane stuff—can be quite affecting for North Koreans," says Gladstein.
Because the flash drives are expensive, the activists are hoping that flooding the market with more will help make them accessible to a bigger swath of the country. And because Americans and others tend to have stashes of unused USB drives, they're hoping to get them for free.
"We want people to do something with the stuff that's just lying around your house," he says. "Or lying around ideally in your company's closet, where maybe you made 1,000 flash drives for CES or some conference and you only used 400 of them."
For those smuggling the drives into North Korea, it's a way to keep going on a shoestring budget. They're also hoping their work reminds the rest of the world about what's going on there. "For the outside world, it's an awareness thing," Goldstein says. "An awareness that this little piece of plastic could be quite influential in someone's life somewhere else. It might be an obsolete piece of junk to you, but it could be totally life-changing and valuable for someone in North Korea."