The greatest weapon against Kim Jong Un may be information. Could the technology industry bring about an Arab Spring on the peninsula?
With all the recent disturbing saber rattling from U.S. president Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, East Asia has become much more unstable. World leaders and seasoned diplomats are urging constraint and intensified diplomacy to defuse the potentially catastrophic situation.
In April I wrote about why tech companies (which tend to stay out of geopolitical emergencies) should be particularly concerned about the situation in North Korea, and begin making preparations now for what could happen later.
That remains true, but tech companies, in my view, could do more than just prepare. They could think about what they can do to help bring about a peaceful solution in North Korea. We’ve all heard about how there are “no good options” in Korea, but that refers to short-term military solutions. The weapon to which North Korea may be most vulnerable is information.
It certainly wields it effectively on its own people. The tight control of information is the Kim Jong Un regime’s most powerful instrument of control. It couples a constant barrage of nationalist propaganda with a smothering control over exposure to outside information and opinions. Children growing up in North Korea, for example, learn very early in life that the United States is their country’s biggest enemy and the cause of all its problems. The end result is a people enslaved to an ideology that goes unquestioned and uncontested.
The tech industry could do a lot to test how well that regime can defend against information from without. Many oppressive regimes before it have not fared well. I’ve seen this up close…
…Silicon Valley companies and other people who want to see North Korea freed from the clutches of Kim Jong Un can also provide technical and financial support to groups like the Human Rights Foundation that are creating soap operas, serials, and other content designed to spread messages of hope and freedom to North Koreans and expose them to the real world that exists outside the strict controls of their leadership.
Third, the tech world can invent new technologies. Consider the winning idea at a recent hacakathon sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation: a pair of Korean-American teenagers partnered with a former Google engineer to create a flat and easily concealable satellite dish that could be surreptitiously slipped across the border to break through the government’s information firewall, and deliver the kind of videos that HRF is making.
Even with tight controls by the government, The Economist notes, “Many watchers believe that, if North Koreans had enough mobile phones, received enough outside news and saw enough soaps depicting the South’s freedoms and riches, the regime would founder.” Thae Yong Ho, a North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea last year, tells the magazine he believes the regime will “collapse on its own when enough external information introduced through drones or USBs reveals the truth of the Kim regime.” (In one recent poll of defectors cited by The Economist, 98% said they had used USBs to store illegal content.)
In no way do I suggest that technology would be “the” savior that frees the North Korean’s from being enslaved by the Kim regime. However, given my own experience with the Soviet Union and seeing how technology impacted the Arab Spring, I do hold out hope that tech could be part of the solution. Opening channels of free communication from outside North Korea could help the poor country’s people push for and achieve greater freedom of speech and expression. It could touch off a warming process that might lead to the ouster of North Korea’s current leadership.