Could Technology create an Arab Spring in North Korea?

Last April, I wrote a piece for Fast Company in which I shared why tech companies should be concerned about the situation in N. Korea.

In this article I stated:

“Some years back, on a trip to South Korea, I asked a top tech official what concerns him the most about tech business in Asia. He told me one of his greatest concerns is the collapse of North Korea, which might result in millions of North Koreans rushing over the border, which he said could destabilize or paralyze South Korea’s social structures and economy. Many people in North Korea have relatives in South Korea, and they would almost certainly seek refuge with them. And many of those relatives likely work in the companies and factories that turn out the tech products we use. This personal, political, and economic disruption could have a major impact on South Korea’s tech companies.

If it happened, South Korean companies might lose their ability to supply parts to other tech companies around the world, not to mention the disruption in the flow of completed products that come from the country. The official felt it could take many months for South Korean officials to re-stabilize the region. And it could take years for tech companies to get back to producing and delivering their products on time.

Of course, the damage would be far greater than just shipping delays and business disruptions. The human toll could be devastating for the country. We may see a major humanitarian crisis if South Korea has trouble absorbing the inflow of North Koreans, most of whom would need assistance to stay alive.”

With all the current saber rattling going on between our president and the leaders in N. Korea, this area of the world has become much more unstable and world leaders and seasoned diplomats are urging restraint and intensified diplomacy to try and diffuse the current war cries that could have devastating realities for both countries if a safer diplomatic solution cannot be found.

While my warning to tech companies about being prepared for what could happen is still relevant, I have also been thinking about ways that technology could bring change to N. Korea. As I thought about this, what came to mind was something that has happened in the past in countries like the Soviet Union and the Middle East where the role of technology played a part in the collapse of these totalitarian governments.

I have personal experience with being under the rule of totalitarian leaders and saw first-hand how their iron fisted leadership had kept their countries from seeing what was going on outside their borders and used their control of information to keep their people enslaved to their ideologies.

Back in 1973, I was with a group of 51 international youth who traveled to Moscow with the purpose of holding a protest rally about the lack of religious and personal freedoms in Red Square during their May Day celebration that year. We went in on a tourist visa and drove the route from Helsinki to Moscow with stops in Kalinin and what is now St. Petersburg. We entered on tourist visas and did not declare what our real intentions were. During the first part of the trip, we saw how depressed the country was and how downtrodden its people had become. All they knew is what their leadership had told them, and these leaders created fear by fabricating how evil the outside world was. Consequently, we from the west were under suspicion from the time we entered the Soviet Union. The trip went smoothly during our stay in Kalinin but by the time we got to St Petersburg they had concluded we had other intentions and we were arrested, roughed up and put under house arrest and kicked out of the country within two days.

This experience of seeing how totalitarian leadership can enslave an entire country played into another key decision I made in the mid-1980’s. By then I was entrenched in the PC industry and started to think about ways of getting information from the outside world into the Soviet Union. In the 1985, about two years before President Reagan spoke to the crowd in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate and told the Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” I hooked up with some folks in Hamburg, Germany whose goal was to try and smuggle fax machines into the Soviet Union. The idea was to write newsletters about what was going on outside of Russia to get people more aware of the lies of communism. By the time I linked up with these folks they already had great success in finding ways to bring fax machines into the Soviet Union. Using acoustic couplers tied to these fax machines to get info from the outside, they would create these newsletters that spread like wildfire. The telephone lines in the Soviet Union were not great but were operational enough for use by these text-only fax machines, and the Soviet leadership had no clue how to stop this flow of information in those days.

While I mainly provided support for these fax machine clandestine operations, one can look back in history and see that it was the flow of information that played a key role in the breakup and collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, Michal Gorbachev, when asked at a major policy event in NYC in the mid 1990’s about what forced the collapse of the Soviet Union, he specifically called out the lack of their ability to control information from the outside and he mentioned the “fax” machine as playing a key role in making that happen.
I had read that quote at the time in some paper and at an event where Mr. Gorbachev spoke at Stanford a year later, I had a chance to briefly interview him and asked him about that statement. He told me that once their people got more information about the free world and the Politburo could not control this flow of information, things began to change rapidly. One of the great ironies of this is that many of the Soviet people found out about the ouster of Gorbachev via fax machines since it took days for the official government statement to confirm the change in Kremlin leadership.

If you look at what happened with the Arab Spring, again the role of technology was quite significant given the growth of smartphones there and social media which was used to not only inform people in Egypt about what was happening around the world but also harness their energy via social media to create the protests that took down the Egyptian rulers. This, combined with many other factors began to open the door for more freedoms for this country and others who have toppled their police state leadership and officials.

Given the role tech had in opening up the Soviet Union and areas in the Middle East, it is at least feasible that technology could play a role in peacefully bringing real change to N. Korea. People could use things like smart phones and the Internet to gain more understanding of what the outside world beyond N. Korea is like. They need to learn that they are being enslaved by ruthless leaders who use propaganda and fake news to control them and using technology there is a possibility that this could influence their views of the Kim regime and over time cause him to loosen his grip on the people of this Hermit Kingdom.

In an important piece in Politico by former State Department official Tom Malinowski, he too sees the potential role of technology helping to bring change to N. Korea in a more peaceful way.

Here is a key passage related to the tech connection:

“Virtually all recent North Korean defectors say that despite the risks, they consumed these media before leaving their country; usage by the general population may be lower, but is growing each year. In a recent survey, 87 percent of defectors say they purchased media devices and other consumer goods, including food and clothes, using money earned outside their official occupation—a sign of how ubiquitous black markets now are in North Korea. As a result, the regime has shifted its strategy from trying to deny its people access to information technologies to controlling and monitoring their use. But the more people use these devices, the harder it becomes for the state to spy on everyone.

At the State Department, I oversaw the U.S. government’s efforts to get information into North Korea. We funded defector-run radio stations, which had the added benefit of training North Koreans to be journalists. We saw an increase in North Koreans watching Chinese and South Korean TV, and support groups producing shows North Koreans would find interesting (like reality shows about the daily experiences—good and bad—of defectors in the South). We helped non-governmental organizations that send in foreign movies and TV shows through the market trade, including one group that made cross-border deliveries by drone of specific films that North Koreans requested (we used to joke that we were running a peculiar version of Netflix for North Korea). A big priority was educating North Koreans on how to protect themselves from surveillance, and staying ahead of regime efforts to turn technology against its people”

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 it could play a role in giving people more information about things outside of North Korea and in turn, help them have greater freedoms of speech and expression and perhaps be used to topple the current leadership someday.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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