Today, the Webby Awards in New York announced that the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF) Flash Drives for Freedom program has been nominated for this year’s award in the Best Cause-Related Campaign category. The Webby is the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet, and you can help support our cause by voting for Flash Drives for Freedom in the Webby People’s Choice Awards!
HRF launched Flash Drives for Freedom in 2016 as a response to North Korea’s totalitarian censorship state. The vast majority of North Koreans have no access to outside information: no internet, no foreign postal mail, and no ability to make phone calls abroad; only government-sanctioned propaganda is allowed. This monopoly of information allows the Kim dynasty to prolong its brutal dictatorship, which runs on Stalin-inspired gulags, a pervasive political police, and the systematic torture, rape, and murder of civilians.
One of the biggest threats to North Korea’s dictatorship is an educated citizenry, informed and empowered by the spread of outside information among the people. Over the past two decades, foreign media, outside news, and pop culture have been steadily leaking through black markets into the country via CDs, DVDs, and now, USB sticks and SD cards.
The Flash Drives for Freedom program has thrived on a simple, yet powerful call to action: donate a USB stick you might have lying around in your desk drawer to help free the minds of North Koreans.
This outside information is gradually and demonstrably changing North Korea far more than military threats or high-level negotiations. Interviews with those who have escaped North Korea reveal that a high percentage of defectors consumed outside information before they fled. Placing outside information into the hands of citizens enables the North Korean people to experience a different reality: one where systematic violence, physical suffering, and intellectual oppression are not the norm. For these citizens, one episode of a South Korean soap opera or even five minutes of footage of a supermarket in Seoul can be life-changing.
As Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and current HRF Board Member, has explained: “If you don’t know you’re a slave, if you don’t know you’re isolated or oppressed, how do you fight to be free? […] Not knowing is the true definition of isolation.” In order for the North Korean people to imagine and work toward a new destiny, they first have to know that one is possible.
To this end, HRF collects flash drives and SD cards as in-kind donations from around the world. The drives are wiped and uploaded with everything from Korean Wikipedia pages, to footage of political protests in South Korea and the U.S., to the latest Korean soap operas and romantic comedies. North Korean defectors like Kang Chol-hwan, the author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag”, and Jung Gwang-Il, the founder of the “No Chain” organization help curate the drives’ content, drawing upon their first-hand knowledge of the dynamics of North Korean society and the needs of the North Korean people.
The drives are then disseminated into North Korea through existing channels. Tactics range from attaching the drives to balloons and floating them over from South Korea, to hiding the contraband in cargo trucks and boats passing through the Chinese border.
As of April 2020, HRF has sent more than 90,000 flash drives and SD cards into North Korea. These have been donated by people in more than 40 U.S. states and from more than 50 countries around the world, originating from schools to libraries to places of worship. Our defector-run field partners have estimated that every drive is viewed by an average of 10 people. This means that we have disseminated outside information to almost one million people who live under the world’s most repressive government.
Beyond smuggling information into North Korea, Flash Drives for Freedom aims to educate the world about the brutal nature of North Korea’s communist regime. At HRF, we raise public awareness by leveraging our current media channels, as well as inventing new, creative ways to engage the general public. In doing so, we spark widespread conversations about North Korea and demonstrate how everyday people can help erode the Kim regime through small, but impactful donations. We believe that international solidarity against authoritarianism is critical in overturning dictatorships and promoting individual freedoms.
Flash Drives for Freedom has been written about in thirty-two different countries and in sixteen languages, including world-class media outlets like The Guardian, BBC, Fast Company, The Economist, The Huffington Post, and WIRED. To date, Flash Drives for Freedom has earned more than one billion global media impressions.
Today, HRF continues working toward an ultimate goal of sending 2.5 million flash drives and SD cards into North Korea, providing a growing stream of outside information to 10% of the population in the world’s most closed society. And you can do your part by voting for Flash Drives for Freedom today!