North Korea: Going low-tech to evade state surveillance

As the North Korean government implements its new anti-reactionary thought law, which promises even harsher punishments for anyone found accessing foreign content, a return to low-tech methods of information distribution is essential to protecting those who are distributing and receiving gospel outreach inside North Korea.

A listener tunes in to a Voice of the Martyrs Korea shortwave radio broadcast, one of five daily broadcasts the ministry does on shortwave and medium wave into North Korea each day.

Technology always leaves a trail, and often the more advanced the technology, the more obvious the trail. As North Koreans increasingly access information from the outside world on SD cards, USBs, cell phones, and computers, it actually becomes easier for the North Korean government to apprehend those who are accessing foreign content. That’s true not only of those who are watching Korean dramas and KPOP but also those who are accessing Christian content electronically.

The strategy of the North Korean government is not always to stop the spread of electronic devices but instead to let the devices themselves do the spying work.

Several years ago, software was installed on phones and computers which made non-state approved files un-playable or deleted them. But now, programs like ‘Trace Viewer’ record user activity and even take screenshots every few minutes that are then accessible to the authorities. USBs are automatically infected with government software that records every device they are plugged into and what files get uploaded or downloaded. It is a very efficient way to spy, and ordinary North Koreans have less options for identifying and getting rid of malware from their electronic devices than users in the rest of the world do.

International human rights organizations inadvertently aid the North Korean government’s surveillance efforts by relying increasingly on high tech methods for information transmission into North Korea.

We see outside groups focused on getting as many SD cards or USB devices as possible inside North Korea. This doesn’t mean SD cards and USBs are bad. Certainly they’re helpful, and we use a lot of them, too. But high tech devices should only ever be a supplement to low tech strategies, because generally speaking, the lower the tech, the more manpower it takes for the government to search and the harder it is for them to trace and apprehend the users.

This is why Voice of the Martyrs Korea continues to use technology that may at first appear to be outdated.

A North Korean defector announcer records the Bible for use on Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s daily radio broadcasts and electronic media.

People may think, “Who listens to shortwave radio anymore? The sound quality of an MP3 player is so much better.” But the reason why we do five shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts into North Korea every day is because radios are a great example of a ‘non-networked device’—that is, a device that doesn’t transmit information about its use the way a computer or phone does. It’s also why we continue to use printed Bibles wherever possible. They can be made as small as many networked devices, and these days with the North Korean government emphasizing electronic surveillance, the use of printed materials is often easier to conceal.

Christians are especially well equipped to evade high tech surveillance because traditional methods of evangelism and discipleship don’t rely on physical materials at all.

Long before individual Christian believers had their own printed Bibles, they accessed scripture through memorization. And they shared it through discrete one-on-one conversations. For underground Christians in North Korea and around the world, scripture memorization and personal evangelism remain the most important ‘technology’ for the transmission of gospel content.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s strategy is always to use the lowest-tech strategy available and to convert information to memorization as quickly as possible.

Our most strategic technology is not SD cards or USBs, though we use those. Our most strategic technology is our North Korean underground church hymnal. Several years ago we worked with underground Christians to select and record hymns that contained a lot of good theology and were easy for North Koreans to sing. Most South Korean worship songs are not done in a musical style which North Koreans can learn easily, and they generally feature one or two simple lines sung over and over, without much doctrine. But hymns can carry a lot of doctrinal information, and when they are sung in the musical style North Koreans are accustomed to hearing, they can be easily learned by the people who tune into our daily radio broadcasts. The North Korean hymnal is also frequently requested by North Korean defector churches and individual North Korean defectors in South Korea.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea produced a North Korean underground church hymnal using North Korean style harmonies and instruments and songs designed to convey theology. The hymnal has become popular among North Korean defectors in South Korea as well.

Evidence of the success of low-tech methods of information transmission into North Korea can be seen through government efforts to restrict them. Balloon launches are the best example of low-tech information transmission, and they were the first technology to be criminalized. At that time, the South Korean government also said that in the future it might look into the question of whether radio broadcasts into North Korea should be restricted. The lower the tech, the greater the likelihood of a ban. This is one reason why we must use the widest variety of technologies possible—both low-tech and high-tech: Because restrictions on sharing the gospel in North Korea aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

More information about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korea radio ministry and Bible distribution efforts is available at https://vomkorea.com/en/project/northkorea/.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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