The outside world is learning about the latest news from North Korea with unprecedented speed these days. Information that used to be impossible to obtain, about such things as living conditions or protests, is becoming available through photos and video clips, while South Korean pop music and TV dramas are spreading quickly throughout North Korea.
The most common conduit is North Korean traders who frequently travel to China. They store the pictures and videos on USB memory sticks and bring them out with them. "In February last year we developed 'stealth' USBs and distributed hundreds of them in the North," said Kim Heung-kwang of defector group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.
Kim said when customs officials check the USBs on their computers, they look empty with "0 byte" appearing on the monitors. But after a certain period of time the content is automatically restored. "The stealth USBs appear to contain nothing when they are sent to North Korea and can easily pass through screening," Kim said. "But South Korean dramas, news or other content are restored later."
Although most North Koreans have no Internet access, they get information about the outside world through USBs, CDs or DVDs. Some young North Koreans who used the USBs ask NKIS to send more TV dramas instead of "dull" pro-democracy propaganda.
The regime organized special squads in January last year to crack down on USBs, CDs or DVDs containing what they see as seditious information.
North Koreans in turn photograph events in the North with their digital cameras and smuggle the information out on small USBs. Activists with human rights groups get information about the North either through communicating via mobile phone with sources near the border with China or through contacts who cross the border into China.