North Koreans turned on but tuned out

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

One might expect North Korea to be the target of many outside Korean-language stations. After all, it is one of the few despotic regimes whose survival still largely depends on myths about the country’s situation and its place in the world.

However, almost no outside broadcasting targets North Korea.

Until the mid-1990s, it didn’t make sense to broadcast to North Korea. Authorities since the 1960s had dealt with the “foreign broadcast problem”, which created so much trouble for other communist regimes, by outlawing all radios with free tuning. Radios sold in North Korea had fixed tuning and thus could receive only three or four official channels.

If North Korean citizens purchased a radio in one of the country’s hard-currency shops, which accepted foreign cash and had a wider variety of items, or when overseas, it had to be submitted to police where technicians would “fix” (disable) it, making sure its owners could only listen to ideologically wholesome programs about the deeds of their Dear Leader – Kim Jong-il.

This ban was enforced with remarkable efficiency. It was largely entrusted to the heads of the “people’s groups” or inminban, to which all North Koreans belong. Typically, such group consists of 30 to 50 families living in the same block, and is headed by an official. These low-level officials were required to regularly check all radios in their neighborhoods, making sure that they could not be used to listen to foreign or, more likely, South Korean broadcasts.

The punishment could be harsh. One official said in the 1980s she discovered that a family in the neighborhood under her supervision had a radio that could tune into foreign broadcasts. She duly reported her discovery, and the family was immediately exiled to the countryside.

Only a few elite families as well as some soldiers had access to radios that were not tampered with, and even they took great risks when they listened to a South Korean broadcast.

But this is no longer the case.

Things started to change in the mid-1990s when the border control collapsed and crowds of refugees and smugglers began to cross the North Korean-Chinese border. Among the many goods they brought back were small radios. Unlike the 1950s-style bulky radios produced in North Korea, these new transistor radios are small and easy to hide. Though every North Korean house is still subject to periodic random searches, chances of finding such a small item are low. Furthermore, officials lost their earlier zeal and started to accept bribes.

In December, a survey of defectors found that 45% had listened to a foreign broadcast prior to fleeing the North. The willingness to defect could mean a person is more inclined to listen to a foreign broadcast, but it might be the other way round as well: information received from outside might prompt the decision to flee.

At any rate, North Korea is not a radioless country any more and its citizens could find out what is going on in the world and in their own country.

But apart from South Korea’s state-owned Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) – which is officially known as the “social education radio” and does its best to be as inoffensive as possible for fear of “irritating” Pyongyang – three stations specifically target the North Korean audience.

The first and most important is Radio Free Asia (RFA), a version of Radio Free Europe that once broadcast into East Europe – the segment that targeted the former USSR was known as the Radio Liberty. RFA began Korean-language broadcasts in 1997 when the South Koreans withdrew from the airwaves. Currently, broadcasts are four hours daily. With its current staffing, it can produce only two hours live, which is then repeated. Unlike KBS, RFA does raise tough questions.

Another station is Free North Korea (FNK), launched as a small online station whose writers and announcers are North Koreans living in the South. From December, FNK began using transmitters in Russia. However, Moscow is as unenthusiastic as Seoul about prospects of an “unstable” North Korea, so FNK had to move its transmitters to Mongolia.

From the beginning, FNK had to deal with problems. The pro-Pyongyang lobby staged noisy rallies in front of the building where the station was located, so it had to move to two windowless rooms in the basement of an unremarkable building on a distant outskirts of Seoul. Wages are small, and some contributors work for free. Few, if any, are professional radio journalists and the shortage of funds means FNK stays on air only one hour a day.

Still, even its limited presence gets under the skin of Pyongyang’s officials, who refer to FNK broadcasters as “traitors, lackeys of the American imperialism, slaves of the conservative forces” and demand they be removed from the airwaves.

The third station is Voice of America (VoA), but true to its name its focuses on promoting America’s image in both Koreas. The station does some critical reporting about North Korean affairs, and surveys show that some defectors listened to VoA before they left North Korea. However, because the topics of VoA programs are largely about the US, its appeal is somewhat limited (especially in a country whose population has been educated to believe that the US is the embodiment of evil).

Thus, while North Koreans want to know more about the outside world, they are still limited when they switch on their smuggled or illicitly repaired radios. Most of the time the air is clear of any subversive messages that would upset their leaders. Even if they listen to RFA or FNK, the stations cannot tell them too much because air time is short and the broadcast offerings limited.

Many observers talk about the “North Korean problem” and a huge amount of money is spent on the issue. Jay Lefkowitz, US special envoy for human rights in North Korea, has suggested increased radio broadcasts on world events and in support of Korean defector groups as key ways to empower the North Koreans. And some members of the US Congress have proposed increasing broadcasts by American-funded radio stations to 24 hours a day and dropping radio receivers into North Korea by balloon.

Still, radio, the easiest and cheapest way to bring about change from within North Korean society, is not utilized to any significant extent. North Koreans who want to learn even the most basic facts about their society and the world are kept in the dark not only by their own government but by the rest of the world as well.

When they want to learn what is going on, they have to rely on North Korean newspapers. They know only too well that these newspapers lie, but nobody gives them much of an alternative.


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