But this is also the best of times to be an information warrior. Ten or 15 years ago, getting news out of North Korea often involved sewing letters into jackets and crossing the border. Now, secretly recorded video of public executions in North Korean prison camps goes viral on the Internet. Libraries of information can move on a flash drive.
And China is playing an unexpected role in the gradual opening of North Korea. Not the Chinese government, which still captures defectors and returns them. But China's thriving smuggling culture reaches into North Korea. Legal and illegal trade spreads radios and cell phones. Chinese cell networks cover North Korean border regions. Brokers run a profitable underground railroad of defectors from North Korea to China and then to Mongolia, Thailand or Vietnam. The relative openness of China is becoming a serious threat to the North Korean regime, in unpredictable ways. During three years spent hiding in China following his defection, Kim became a Christian. "When I first came to China," Kim says, "I found the true meaning of the cross.
With strategic options relating to North Korea limited, an information assault on the regime assumes greater urgency. The irreplaceable National Endowment for Democracy supports Free North Korea Radio. But neither South Korea nor the United States shows much creativity or commitment in applying new information technologies to help the spread of freedom.
Technology is important to this task. But defectors remind us that democratic progress ultimately depends on a moral determination. How does a mind change? The key, says another North Korean defector, Kang Chol-Hwan, is "the internal courage to see the essence of evil."
In his autobiography, "Witness," Whittaker Chambers tells the story of a German diplomat in Moscow during the Cold War who abandoned his communist beliefs. The diplomat's daughter explained the shift: "'He was immensely pro-Soviet,' she said, 'and then -- you will laugh at me -- but you must not laugh at my father -- and then -- one night -- in Moscow -- he heard screams. That's all. Simply one night he heard screams.'"
For those with ears to hear, those screams can be heard in North Korea.