How People Smuggle Forbidden Movies And TV Shows Into North Korea

“It’s like taking the red pill in The Matrix or ripping down the wall in The Truman Show."

North Koreans are largely cut off from the outside world, but Hollywood films on flash drives secretly smuggled into the country are helping inform citizens about life outside the totalitarian regime. 

The program is called Flash Drives for Freedom, and it's one of the broadest efforts by North Korean defectors and refugees to help influence people still living under the totalitarian Kim regime. The program's organizers, who are partnered with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), hope that by disseminating this content they can help North Koreans realize that better lives are possible.

"It's like taking the red pill in The Matrix or ripping down the wall in The Truman Show," Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer for HRF, told A Plus. "Your life is a construct based on the mythology of the Kim family. It's basically a theocracy where you worship the Kims as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And then all of the sudden you realize there is something else out there."


That "something else" is a world where people can get three meals a day and have more personal freedoms than most North Korean citizens can imagine. Now, the Flash Drives for Freedom program is trying to get as much information into as many North Koreans' hands as possible. The program does it by taking flash drive donations and then uploading material such as Hollywood movies, educational content, offline Wikipedia pages and Bollywood or South Korean films for North Koreans to consume. Flash Drives for Freedom organizers speak with recently escaped North Korean refugees and ask them what content is popular inside the country, then make sure they include that content in the flash drives. Occasionally, they'll even wrap flash drives in hand warmers, tie them to balloons and GPS trackers, and, when the wind is right, release them at the demilitarized zone border between North and South Korea. Gladstein uses the GPS trackers to determine where the balloons go once they are inside the country.

Yeonmi Park, a 21-year-old North Korean defector who escaped the country when she was 13, said even as a child she was actively consuming black-market content forbidden by the regime. She remembers watching Home Alone 2 and Pretty Woman. Park now works with HRF on its Flash Drives for Freedom program, using her own experience to tell the world about the kind of impact these flash drives can have on someone. 

"I was brainwashed every single day," Park told A Plus. "I had no internet. I had no idea how Americans lived their life… they showed us paintings of Americans and they looked really scary and evil."

Yeonmi Park, who works with Flash Drives for Freedom
Activist Yeonmi Park at a spring 2018 event in New York City. Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tory Burch Foundation

But Park remembers how the movies and shows she saw changed something inside her. She saw that other people were living happier, freer lives. Still, she said, she didn't escape to try and live a Hollywood lifestyle or to get to South Korea or the United States.

"I escaped to try and find food," she said.

Now, with programs like Flash Drives for Freedom, the dissemination of forbidden information and narratives is becoming more prevalent across the country than it has ever been. As a result, North Korea is changing, Park said. The content flooding the black market is encouraging people to leave, changing people's perspective of the North Korean leadership, and giving North Koreans a thirst for accurate information. Gladstein said it's become so widespread that the Kim regime recently addressed the program via a state news agency frequently read by Kim regime officials, warning that the program was an "ill design" that "can never work," and described the effort to disseminate such information as a "wild dream of those who are utterly ignorant of the DPRK."

41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished, according to the United Nations, and Park said that for some in the country, conditions are so desperate that they may not fear the punishment for being caught with forbidden content. 

As of this fall, Gladstein says the organization has smuggled 70,000 flash drives into North Korea. Their only way to get the flash drives into the country is through its markets, and the drives are then sold, purchased, traded and bartered. Gladstein says the black market is the biggest distributor of outside information, and since flash drives themselves are legal in North Korea, it's easy for the information to change hands without raising suspicions. The organization's assumption is that approximately 10 people see each drive once it is shared or resold.  By that logic, he's hopeful the content has gotten to hundreds of thousands — if not millions— of North Koreans.  Based on the information the organization has gathered, they suspect the audience for the content is largely young adults.

The program isn't without criticism, though. Gladstein has heard some people speculate that it's useless to smuggle flash drives in, because North Koreans don't own computers. While that's largely true, he was quick to point out that doesn't mean North Koreans don't have access to computers — he says they do, through libraries. Gladstein added that many own tablets, portable DVD players or smartphones, which could all be used to play the content on their own or with a simple adapter. 

Flash Drives for Freedom
GPS images showing where the balloons landed in North Korea. Flash Drives for Freedom

He's also heard people criticize Flash Drives For Freedom because the program may put North Koreans in danger. Since the regime punishes people for viewing or disseminating content like what's on the flash drives, there is great risk for anyone who is in possession of one. But Gladstein says he finds that criticism ignorant.

"I think that's a very patronizing point of view," Gladstein said. "These are not children. These are adults who live in a totalitarian police state. It is their sovereignty, their decision to act. They don't have to buy a flash drive, they don't have to pick something up off the ground, they make that decision because they want to. And if you don't allow them to make the decision, they don't have it." 

Park said that even though the outside content she saw depicted a better world, one she understood was outside of her own country, she nevertheless could not have completely imagined what life was going to be like when she left North Korea. 

"You cannot imagine life on a different planet," Park said. "You don't have the context to even imagine it. It's so hard to know what life can be… showing them what life can and should be is going to help them start that revolution."

Now that Park and Gladstein are working with North Korean defectors, they've come to find many of them are committing their entire lives to sending information back into the country to the people they left behind. Their hope is that, over time, those people can have enough information to make educated assessments about their future and the regime they live under.

"They are very desperate to know the truth," Park said. "If they have a choice, education and the truth, they are going to do something about it. That's my hope."

Cover image courtesy Flash Drives for Freedom.


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.