Mad about free speech and North Korea? Hack back, says group

White House: We didn't pressure Sony
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Story highlights

  • North Korean defector who lives in U.S. calls picture pulling "embarrassing"
  • Group seeks to harness anger over film being pulled, turned into attention on North Korea
  • Hackathons meant to find ways to disseminate information in North Korea

(CNN)Jo Jin-hye, who escaped North Korea, wanted to watch "The Interview."

The comedy lampoons North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose dynasty she loathes. Her father died in custody of North Korean security forces, who tied him by his wrist in a torturous position for 10 days without food. Her younger brother starved to death and her older sister is missing.
    Jo escaped North Korea with her mother and sister, and was granted asylum in the United States in 2008, where they now reside in a quiet suburb.
    When told "The Interview" would not be shown in theaters, Jo asked, "Are we that afraid? It's sort of embarrassing. I thought America is strong. If North Korea is that frightening, I think that speaks for itself."
    If North Korea hacked the United States, she said, "Of course, people have to hack North Korea."
    Satire and North Korea
    There's nothing like canceling a satire to anger a nation. From celebrities to politicians, just about anybody with a social media account has been venting about Sony Picture's decision to pull "The Interview" from U.S. theaters. Critics say it's caving to hackers and muzzling free speech.
    The FBI announced North Korea is officially responsible for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures, an attack law enforcement officials called a "game changer." In a press conference Friday, Obama said the United States will respond "proportionally" to the attack,though he would not say how it would specifically retaliate.
    "Right now people are angry in the U.S., people are angry at Sony," said Alex Gladstein, director of institutional affairs at Human Rights Foundation. "It's not the greatest movie of all time, but they can't even go see it."
    He said he'd like to harness the interest about the film and North Korea to "get people to hack North Korea back in a educational way, to look at what we're doing, some of the groups of North Koreans who've escaped, who are hacking for educational purposes. If we can hack North Korea back, it'd be pretty powerful."
    Gladstein doesn't mean hacking in the sense of exposing emails or using the tactics of the Sony hackers, who call themselves the Guardians of Peace.
    It's a type of hacking "to disrupt North Korea and help end the Kim regime's monopoly of knowledge. It's nonviolent and we're figuring out the best way to get Hollywood movies, Korean dramas and offline Wikipedias, different art, music into North Korea."
    For years, activists have been disseminating radios, launching balloons near the border and circulating secret cell phones, USB drives through smugglers to communicate with North Koreans -- who are at great threat if they're caught. They face severe punishment, imprisonment and even death for possessing or watching foreign media.
    "Satire and creative thinking are dangerous for dictatorships and the ability to control society. It's losing control and it's very afraid of that," Gladstein said.
    The group wants to drop DVDs of "Team America: World Police," a 2004 film that pokes fun at North Korea's former leader, Kim Jong Il, along with several other movies in a campaign it's calling #Hackthemback.
    The country's human rights record is under increasing scrutiny as the UN General Assembly called for the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International International Criminal Court and sanction those most responsible for "crimes against humanity."
    Silicon Valley meets North Korean defectors
    What's in the movie Sony won't release?
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    In August, a group of human rights activists, coders, engineers and Silicon Valley types gathered in SOMA, a San Francisco neighborhood known for its concentration of start-ups and tech companies.
    North Korean defectors flew into the event, called Hack North Korea to share their insights in spreading information inside the country.
    DVDs and Korean dramas give North Koreans a peek into the forbidden, outside world they had never known.
    "When North Koreans describe their 'Aha' moment, when they realize they were lied to by their government, they got information from a movie or reading a book or seeing something -- something that jived," said Alex Lloyd, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who also co-organized the event.
    Some of the hackathon ideas included retro tech like smuggling pagers into North Korea to decidedly no tech, like a slingshot to fling media across the border. One centered on using the Raspberry Pi, a popular microcomputer that fits in the palm of the hand.
    The winning idea at the hackathon was a satellite receiver that would get broadcast signals from South Korea. That team has an 18-year-old hacker, named Justice Suh, who traveled to South Korea this year to show a prototype to North Korea activist groups.
    If the receivers are small enough, they could be smuggled into the country for North Koreans to receive outside information, Suh said.
    The first hackathon was a test and future North Korea-focused events will likely focus on solving certain technical issues, Lloyd said.
    "What's lasting is the relationships made between the North Korean community living in South Korea and Silicon Valley," he said.