Infiltrators of North Korea: Tiny Radios

From the New York Times
James Brooke
March 3, 2003 

As the Pentagon studies moving tons of military hardware within striking range of North Korea, some say the weapon most feared by the Stalinist government there may be a disposable radio the size of a cigarette pack.

“Little throwaway radios, you listen, you throw away — the smaller the better, the more disposable, the better,” said Pastor Douglas E. Shin, a Korean-American human rights activist who advocates smuggling thousands of tiny radios capable of receiving foreign broadcasts into the North.

The radio smuggling is part of a growing public and private effort, including foreign radio broadcasts, to crack an information monopoly in the North that has helped keep the Kim family in power for nearly 60 years. So tight is the information blackout that defectors report that they believed that their country — one of the world’s poorest — was wealthier than South Korea and that the United States donated rice as a form of tribute to the powerful Communist state.

In January, in a bid to emulate the experience of East Europeans in the cold war, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America doubled their hours of Korean-language broadcasting into North Korea. In February, Radio Free Asia joined Voice of America in broadcasting into North Korea on medium wave, a bandwidth accessible with cheap AM radios.

But the first challenge, skeptics note, is that few people in the North have the radios — or the courage — to listen to foreign broadcasts, something that advocates of the tiny disposable radio say they are determined to change.

Under threat of severe penalties, the vast majority of North Korea’s 22 million people are not allowed any contact with the outside world — letters, telephone calls, travel, radio or television programs.

All citizens are required to register their radios with the local police. On registration, foreign-made radios are tuned to the state radio frequency, soldered into place, and sealed. The police then make unannounced inspections of households with foreign-made radios to verify that they have not been tampered with.

“A lot of people in the White House believe the Iron Curtain came down because U.S. government radio supplied the information that created the Velvet Revolution,” said an American diplomat here, referring to Czechoslovakia’s revolt against Communism. “But in the case of North Korea, is it the sound of one hand clapping? Is it getting in there?”

Advocates of smuggling radios into the North, mostly human rights and Christian church groups, say their effort is aimed at ensuring that someone is indeed listening. Even if only a tiny elite tune in, they say, the effect can be powerful.

“The populace will suffer a kind of psychological collapse when they learn what has been done to them and what the real world is really like,” predicted Radek Sikorski, who grew up listening to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe in communist Poland and now works at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Control of information,” he said, “is absolutely crucial to the survival of this regime because the system is based on lies.”

In a recent manifesto , Mr. Sikorski joined 16 American policy makers in demanding that the Bush administration tie talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program to an opening on human rights, including freer information.

Citing the impact of the Helsinki Agreement of 1975 in undermining the Soviet Union and its East European allies, the group called for “significantly expanding the current, scandalously inadequate Korean-language Radio Free Asia broadcasts.”

Already, in a small office rented on the seventh floor of a Seoul newspaper building, Radio Free Asia broadcasters try to bring to North Koreans four hours of news a day.

“North Korean people are not told the truth, so somehow we have to be surrogates, to tell them what is going on,” said Ahn Jae Hoon, who was born in Pyongyang, North Korea, and became director of the Korean branch of Radio Free Asia in 1997, after 26 years at The Washington Post.

The reports are clearly aimed at undermining the leadership of Kim Jong Il. Some broadcasts report on food and power shortages, others on the image of North Korea as isolated and weak abroad. Still other reports discuss military dissatisfaction and coup attempts in the 1990’s, and the fact that Mr. Kim insists that all soldiers be disarmed before he visits a military unit.

The radio also gives practical information for defectors — how to contact missionary groups in northern China, how to dress and behave to escape arrest and deportation to North Korea.

In contrast, under Seoul’s “sunshine policy” of reconciliation, South Korea’s state-owned Korean Broadcasting Service increasingly airs programs intended not to provoke the North and to promote peaceful coexistence on the peninsula.

On Saturday at a national park near Kosung, North Korea, two park guides spoke dismissively of foreign broadcasts. “Why would we want to listen to radio from the South? No one is stopping us from listening, but we don’t want to anyway,” said Kim Dong Chul, 31. “The music is not our style and the news is not for us. It’s for the people in Seoul.” Another guide, a 26-year-old man who declined to be identified, said, “I don’t have enough time in a day to listen to our radio, and then to listen to radio meant for other people.”

The guides are largely chosen for their political loyalties, because they come in contact with large numbers of South Korean tourists.

Backers of foreign broadcasts, however, say more and more North Koreans are finding ways to tune in.

As trade with China increases and radio prices fall, some North Koreans now buy two radios, but register only one with the police, defectors say. In a country wracked by power shortages, government jamming is spotty. Also, some North Koreans dare to tinker with state-supplied radios, defectors add.

Still, for now, foreign broadcasting is largely limited to North Korea’s elite.

In 1999, Mr. Ahn said, a survey commissioned by Radio Free Asia found that one of 12 “elite” defectors polled had listened to Radio Free Asia. A similar survey in 2001 found that the proportion had risen to 6 of 12.


Comments are closed.