U.S.-funded broadcasters in S. Korea bombard North

Station director Kim Seong-min in the newsroom at Free North Korea Radio.
Station director Kim Seong-min in the newsroom at Free North Korea Radio. Tim Johnson / MCT

SEOUL, South Korea — In isolated North Korea, the only legal transistor radios have dials permanently set to government stations.

But smugglers and itinerant traders bring an increasing number of radios into North Korea, according to anecdotal reports, and that's gratifying news for three tiny broadcasters that beam information north of the border.

Each night, the three U.S.-financed radio stations crackle onto the air, trying to reach North Koreans who are brave — or reckless — enough to tune into foreign newscasts in defiance of the North’s Stalinist regime.

“Greetings from the voice of hope,” began one recent newscast from Open Radio for North Korea. “We are trying to reach you to provide you with information.”

The three broadcasters — Open Radio for North Korea, Free North Korea Radio and Radio Free Chosun — each receive about $200,000 annually from the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit body financed by Congress to promote democracy worldwide.

The broadcasters have different styles and offer different programming. North Korean defectors operate Free North Korea Radio, which takes a combative line against the Kim Jong Il regime. Radio Free Chosun airs educational and news programs, and Open Radio for North Korea offers discussions about democracy and civic affairs.

In some ways, the stations broadcast to a black hole. They don’t know how many people tune in, and feedback from listeners is extremely limited. All three broadcast only an hour or two a day. But all think that those who tune in include disaffected citizens, and maybe some high-level cadres in Pyongyang who are worried about what may be in store for the world’s last totalitarian regime.

“They know there is no future for their government. So they have to be ready for the change,” said Young Howard, the executive director of Open Radio for North Korea.

For decades, radios have been treated as potentially subversive instruments in North Korea. By state fiat, all radios are fixed to the frequencies of government propaganda broadcasts. Those who tinker with radios to get foreign broadcasts face punishment. In the past, that punishment could include being sent to a labor camp.

Change is in the air, though. Prices of radios in China have fallen to $5, and customs officials appear to be easing up on the flow of traders across the northern border with China, earning bribes on the increased trade. Citizens who obtain imported radios are supposed to take them to government offices to have the dials locked. But some don't, the exile radio-station directors said. Others tinker with the radios to unlock the dials later.

“These days, a lot of people have radios where the frequencies haven’t been fixed. It’s not as risky as you might imagine,” Howard said.

“We’ve heard that there are a flood of radios coming over from China now,” added John Knaus, a senior program officer for the National Endowment for Democracy, which helped get all three Seoul-based stations on the air by late 2005 with technical training and financial support.

“When we started this, we were told there were probably 200,000 to 300,000 short-wave radios and 2 to 3 million medium-wave radios" in North Korea, Knaus said in a telephone interview from Washington. Now the number appears to have risen significantly, he said.

A survey in 2005 of some 300 refugees from North Korea, conducted by a South Korean press foundation, found that about 4 percent had listened to foreign short-wave broadcasts before their flights abroad, Howard said.

Many North Koreans remain reluctant to trust information from abroad.

“We are educated from early childhood that other countries are our enemies,” said Kim Seong-min, a former North Korean army captain who left his country in 1999 and now directs Free North Korea Radio.

His station, which has six journalists, broadcasts two hours a day. It plans to increase to three hours a day and expand from short wave to medium wave by December, reaching AM radios across most of North Korea. Its journalists are North Korean defectors who use phrases familiar to listeners, and often speak with passion.

“We really want to explain that you have the right to freedom and that Kim Jong Il’s regime is illegitimate,” said Lee Kuem Ryong, a reporter at Free North Korea Radio.

Safety concerns abound at the stations, where reporters often use pseudonyms.

“Some staff members’ families still live in North Korea. If the North Korean government realized who was broadcasting with us, maybe the family members would be killed or sent to prison camps,” said An Kyounghee, a spokeswoman at Radio Free Chosun.

Even some people in South Korea, including within the government, are displeased with the stations, seeing them as lightning rods in the fragile relationship with Pyongyang.

South Korea doesn't permit the stations to transmit signals from within its borders, so they have broadcast towers in other Asian countries, although they decline to say where. Nor does Seoul provide any funding.

“The South Korean government doesn’t like us, but there is nothing they can do,” Howard said. “We have qualifications to apply for government funds, but they said no.”

None of the stations can send reporters into North Korea; it would be too perilous. They gather information among ethnic Koreans living along China’s border with North Korea, who contact refugees fleeing across the border.

At Open Radio for North Korea, Howard said programs on his station explained to North Koreans how South Korea’s democracy functioned.

“There’s no culture in North Korea of political discussion,” Howard said, using the English he polished during years living in Washington. University students, including North Korean defectors, produce some of the programming.

At Radio Free Chosun, programs on Kim Jong Il’s family and personal life are especially popular, with ample details on his multiple wives, the tussle among his sons to succeed him and how he climbed to power himself over the backs of other pretenders.

The station also analyzes school textbooks used in North Korea, letting some of the air out of state glorification of Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung.

“If Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung are such great leaders, why didn’t they support the people during the great famine?” An asked. She referred to the latter 1990s, when as many as a million North Koreans may have perished because of dire food shortages.

On rare occasions, refugees contact the stations once they flee North Korea, expressing gratitude for the broadcasts and saying they lifted their spirits.

Kim Seong-min pulled out a handwritten letter that read in part: “Thank you. I got information from your broadcasts. You are very brave and smart.”

Lately, North Korea has been a little more aggressive at jamming radio signals.

“I guess it’s a good sign,” Knaus said. “If they weren’t getting jammed, it would be a sign that the (North Korean) government didn’t think they were effective.”