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Radical listening

North Koreans are increasingly defying their government to tap into foreign radio broadcasts, according to Peter Beck of the Wall Street Journal. In his recent article, Beck highlighted the high barriers that North Korean civilians face to receive information from foreign sources.  All radios sold in North Korea have their dials permanently fixed to the government radio station.  Foreign stations are frequently jammed by government authorities, and civilians caught listening to illegal broadcasts can face up to 10 years in prison.  Reporters Without Borders ranks North Korea as second to last in the latest press freedom rankings (only Eritrea scored worse).

Nonetheless, outside radio broadcasts, including stations by North Korean defectors, are having an impact in the country. As Beck noted:

Broadcasters to North Korea frequently receive heartbreaking messages of thanks from North Koreans in China. One listener on RFA’s Web site described RFA as “our one ray of hope.” Over the past several years, South Korean researchers have quietly interviewed thousands of North Korean defectors, refugees, and visitors to China about their listening habits. One unpublished survey conducted last summer of North Koreans in China found that over 20% had regularly listened to the banned broadcasts, and almost all of them had shared the information with family members and friends. Several earlier studies confirm these findings.

The use of foreign broadcasts to help inform citizens in other countries of the outside world is not new. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points were translated and broadcast across war-torn Europe even before radio had become common technology. Broadcasts by the BBC allowed people on continental Europe to hear what was happening in their own countries under Nazi rule during World War II. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) started in the early years of the Cold War as a way to give those in Eastern Europe a source of non-communist news and continues to operate in Europe and Central Asia where many of the former Soviet countries are still dominated by authoritarian regimes.

Although the concept may seem novel, radio has a long history of being able to defy barriers established to keep the public uninformed about their broader condition. As a result, there is an equally as long (though largely unsuccessful) track record of governments attempting to block such transmissions and limit the influence that these outside programs have. Stories of nights spent listening to illicit broadcasts by RFE/RL during the Cold War highlight the resilience and power that radio has despite attempts at censorship, as recently opened Soviet archives confirm.

In the case of North Korea, the broadcasts may also be influencing political policy within the country, as seen with the government’s apology over the recent currency revaluation disaster.  Though seemingly unrelated, the connection to the radio broadcasts and the government’s attitude in the face of the currency issue is there.

On dozens of occasions, authorities in Pyongyang have used their own media to attack foreign broadcasters. The North reserves the insult “reptile” exclusively for foreign broadcasters. Last month, the regime likened defector broadcasters to “human trash.” Ironically, this diatribe also contained the first official mention that the botched currency revaluation had taken place. Foreign broadcasters not only struck a nerve, but also forced the regime to discuss developments it would prefer to ignore. If the broadcasts were not being listened to, the regime would ignore them instead of lavishing free publicity . . . The North Korean regime is not only losing its monopoly on the control of information; outside broadcasts are also undermining loyalty to the regime. Defectors cite foreign radio-listening as one of the leading motivations to defect.

It’s clear that these broadcasts have the potential to encourage change, the same way they have throughout the history of radio. But in this particular case, by using underground stringers in the country, it also helps bring information about North Korea to the outside world. That has the potential for us to better understand the realities of life in the world’s most isolated country, and may move the political debate on North Korea forward in international forums far removed from the streets of Pyongyang.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

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