The Opening of the North Korean Mind
Pyongyang Versus the Digital Underground
Advice for Young Muslims
How to Survive in an Age of Extremism and Islamophobia
The Jacksonian Revolt
American Populism and the Liberal Order
How America Lost Faith in Expertise
And Why That's a Giant Problem
Asia's Other Revisionist Power
Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China
A Vision of Trump at War
How the President Could Stumble Into Conflict
Intelligence and the Presidency
How to Get It Right
Where to Go From Here
Rebooting American Foreign Policy
The Korean Missile Crisis
Why Deterrence Is Still the Best Option
When Stalin Faced Hitler
Who Fooled Whom?
How to Counter Fake News
Technology Can Help Distinguish Fact From Fiction
Trump Takes Aim at the European Union
Why the EU Won't Unify In Response
Good Foreign Policy Is Invisible
Why Boring Is Better
The Coming Islamic Culture War
What the Middle East's Internet Boom Means for Gay Rights, and More
The Women Who Escaped ISIS
From Abused to Accused
Who Is Narendra Modi?
The Two Sides of India's Prime Minister
Democracy Is Not Dying
Seeing Through the Doom and Gloom
How a Nazi Massacre Came to Be Remembered as Its Opposite
Is Putin Losing Control of Russia's Conservative Nationalists?
What the Matilda Controversy Reveals About His Rule
China's Return to Strongman Rule
The Meaning of Xi Jinping's Power Grab
On a cold, clear night in September 2014, a man I’ll call Ahn walked up to the edge of the Tumen River on the Chinese side of the heavily guarded border between China and North Korea. At its narrowest points, the Tumen measures a little over 150 feet wide, and Ahn could easily see the North Korean side from where he stood. In two bags, he was carrying 100 USB drives filled with films, television shows, music, and e-books from around the world.
Almost anywhere else, such material would be considered completely innocuous. At this border, however, it constitutes highly illicit, dangerous contraband. In the totalitarian state of North Korea, citizens are allowed to see and hear only those media products created or sanctioned by the government. Pyongyang considers foreign information of any kind a threat and expends great effort keeping it out. The regime’s primary fear is that exposure to words, images, and sounds from the outside world could make North Koreans disillusioned with the state of affairs in their own country, which could lead them to desire—or even demand—change.
Ahn is a defector who escaped from North Korea in 2004 and now lives in the South Korean capital, Seoul, where he runs a nongovernmental organization that sends information into North Korea. He is one of the dozens of defectors from North Korea whom I have interviewed in the past ten years. Defectors’ testimony is not always reliable, nor is it enough to piece together an accurate portrait of life inside the opaque and secretive country. But when combined with other information, defectors’ stories offer invaluable insights.
At the edge of the river that night, Ahn knew precisely what to do; he had made this kind of trip to the border many times before. With his senses on high alert, he scanned the area for guards. Once he felt certain that he wasn’t being watched, he placed his USB drives into a plastic bin, which he wrapped in a
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