North Korea, land of unicorn skeletons and hangover-free liquor, is also something of a repressive hellhole for its citizens. Food shortages, flaky electricity, little to no infrastructure, and zero tolerance for anything not state-sanctioned makes for a daily existence marked by paranoia, struggle and hunger. To make matters worse, dictator Kim Jong-un has effectively banned all foreign media, isolating the country from any influence outside its own brainwashing propaganda.
Despite the doom and gloom, all hope is not lost. In fact, thanks to the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and the Silicon Valley nonprofit Forum 280, there's now a way that each and every one of us can contribute a small rip in North Korea's Iron Curtain. The two organizations have banded together to launch Flash Drives for Freedom, a campaign that seeks used flash drives to expose North Korean citizens to the world beyond their borders.
"In the world’s most closed society, flash drives are valuable tools of education and discovery," the campaign explains. "In a society without Internet, with total government censorship, and with no independent media, North Koreans rely on these little pieces of plastic. Filled with films, books, and explainers, they are windows to the outside world."
The process works like this: You take a few old flash drives and send them to the campaign's HQ in Palo Alto, California. Workers there ship the little hard drives to North Korean refugee-led organizations, which load them with Western media and smuggle them into the country. Each year, no fewer than 10,000 flash drives are handed out in secret to North Korean citizens. With donated drives from around the world, this number could climb much higher.
According to the North Korean Strategy Center (NKSC), the series most preferred by North Koreans include "Friends" and "Desperate Housewives." (The clandestine smuggling efforts of this group were featured in a fantastic article by Wired's Andy Greenberg, by the way.)
“When North Koreans watch 'Desperate Housewives,' they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” NKSC founder Kang Chol-hwan told Greenberg. “They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind.”
So take a moment to dig around in your desk and scour for some old USB drives. As long as the drive is still working, that little piece of plastic is a potential mind-altering window for someone in desperate need. And hey, if it results in a few laughs as well, all the better.